To the Editor:
In an article last week in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, nonprofit experts and philanthropy scholars criticized MacKenzie Scott, one of the wealthiest women in the world, for not providing more details about how much she donated and to whom in her latest round of giving. But as the leader of an organization that has benefited greatly from Scott’s generosity, I believe her decision aligns with the spirit of trust that makes her giving approach so unique and important.
For nearly two years, Scott has been shaking up philanthropy, giving away billions in large, unrestricted gifts to organizations advancing social justice. Praised by many for giving so generously and with no strings attached, Scott has also been censured by critics who claim her giving lacks transparency and accountability. When she wrote in a blog last week, which she has since clarified, that she will no longer announce the organizations she gives to or the size of her gifts, those critics pounced.
Yet tackling our world’s toughest challenges will require more philanthropists to follow Scott’s lead, giving more boldly and with fewer strings. To be sure, Scott herself has acknowledged that the fortune she is giving away was “enabled by systems in need of change” and her approach does buck many longstanding philanthropic norms.
As the founder of Rise Up, a nonprofit that recently received funding from Scott, I know firsthand that donors like her, who are not part of the philanthropic mainstream, enable us to expand our work and advance systemic change in previously unimaginable ways.
Last March, I received an email from a consultant representing an anonymous philanthropist interested in “making a number of investments in support of issues related to equity, justice, and bridging divides globally.” Among the hundreds of unread emails in my inbox, this one definitely caught my attention.
The following week, my team and I talked with the consultant about our goals, focus on equity, financial health, and strategic direction. She asked questions about how Rise Up invests in local leaders to improve health, education, and economic justice for women and girls and the impact of that work.
The consultant was unable to share which philanthropist she represented or when we might hear from her again, if ever.
For months, I scoured my inbox. And then finally one morning, I got the email I’d been waiting for — a cryptic request to schedule a confidential phone call.
The next day, I spoke with a woman who told me that she represents MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett. The representative let me know that Scott and Jewett would like to make a gift to support Rise Up’s work — the largest donation we had ever received. She said it would be entirely up to us to decide how to allocate the funding, with minimal restrictions or reporting requirements.
This was a game changer. For a nonprofit founder who has laid awake many nights worrying about our finances, it felt like Christmas in May. For the first time in over a decade, our team could think expansively about how to advance gender equity, rather than worrying about how we’d get through the next budget cycle.
Even more than the amount of her donation, the trust Scott invests in nonprofits is truly transformational. Scott enables organizations like mine to shift from a mind-set of scarcity and competition to one of abundance and possibility by freeing us from the traditional constraints of philanthropic bureaucracy. As Scott wrote last week, these gifts “will do more good if others are free from my ideas about what they should do.”
Because the majority of philanthropic dollars can only be used to support specific projects and often do not cover core costs like staffing and rent, nonprofits like Rise Up often have to raise additional funds just to keep the lights on. Onerous grant proposals and reporting requirements consume untold, costly hours of staff time. Additionally, most grants last between one and three years, even though we all know that no one will solve climate change, poverty, systemic racism, or gender inequality in such a narrow timeframe. Just as real progress is starting on a project, it’s already time to reapply. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The cumulative effect of this traditional approach to philanthropy is akin to watering the leaves of social change while starving the roots. Nonprofits must be so focused on maximizing every penny that we lack the time, space, and resources to think bigger about solving the very challenges we exist to address.
For Rise Up, Scott’s gift has been transformational. We are now expanding our programming, making long-overdue additions to our staff, building out our data-management systems, exploring creative new partnerships, and charting a course to achieve our vision over the next five years. Most important, we can now put more resources directly in the hands of community leaders who best understand their own challenges and how to solve them.
Some philanthropists, particularly leading-edge foundations and donors of color, already give generously, trust deeply, and work in solidarity with the nonprofits they support. But many donors — especially those who, like Scott, have accumulated their wealth through systems in need of change — would do well to rethink their approach to philanthropy.
By making more larger gifts, lessening funding restrictions, and providing longer-term support, philanthropists can enable nonprofits to transform our systems and solve the world’s toughest problems. While critics claim that Scott is evading transparency by letting nonprofits decide for themselves whether to disclose her gifts, these naysayers are missing the larger point. By trusting and putting power into the hands of the organizations she supports, Scott is expanding philanthropy’s potential to create lasting change.
Denise R. Dunning
Founder and Executive Director