Inside MacKenzie Scott’s ‘No Strings Attached’ Philanthropy: ‘I Was In Tears’ (2023)

Morgan State University, a historically Black public college in Baltimore that traces its roots to the year 1867, has always struggled financially. That changed in December 2020. The phone rang in Morgan’s development office. A representative for MacKenzie Scott—currently the world’s 19th richest person with a net worth of $59 billion—had a message to deliver. Scott, the ex-wife of the world’s richest person, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (net worth nearly $200 billion), was making a transformative donation to Morgan of $40 million. And, unlike much philanthropic giving to institutions of higher education, the Scott money came with no strings attached. Morgan could do with it as it saw fit.

“When I got off the phone I had to collect myself,” says Morgan President David Wilson. “I was quite emotional. I even shed a tear.” Wilson says he plans to add 95% of Scott’s donation to Morgan’s $100 million endowment, which will help fund scholarships, academic research and innovative new programs including work on health equity and intergenerational mobility. “We’re not looking to spend the money right away,” he says. “We want to invest it over decades.”

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Morgan State is one of about 780 organizations to receive part of the $8.5 billion given away by Scott in three rounds since July 2020. Groups across the country have received funds, and in a variety of areas: public health, education, the arts, racial equity, climate change and economic mobility, to name just a few. Scott’s made quite the impression on the world of philanthropy as a result, even while shunning the spotlight and not talking to reporters. She doesn’t appear to have an office or even a mailing address for her philanthropy, instead working through nonprofit firm Bridgespan. While Scott publicly announces each round on Medium, the blogging website, she does not appear to speak directly to the nonprofits. In each post, Scott includes a short essay explaining her view on philanthropy alongside the list of groups receiving funds. Her latest round on June 15 was $2.7 billion distributed to 286 groups.

“A gift like this for a nonprofit is equivalent to a billion dollars.”

Scott’s June 15 post was the most detailed explanation of her philanthropic philosophy to date (“attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change”) and gently chided the news media for paying more attention to her wealth than to the organizations receiving money. The total amount of her giving in 2020 outstripped the entirety of the $5.1 billion in grants given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2019, one of the world’s top philanthropic organizations. Scott is a signee of the Giving Pledge, a promise made by billionaires to give away half of their wealth in their lifetimes or after their deaths. All of this adds up, as 10 Scott recipients told Forbes, to a new way of philanthropy—and their hope that other big donors will follow Scott’s lead.

(Video) How Mckenzie Scott (Amazon) Made Billions

Scott’s July 2020 giving could not have come at a better time for Accion Opportunity Fund, a small business loan provider in California focusing on women and Black-owned businesses. An infusion of $15 million from Scott—the largest single donation in Accion’s 27 year history—was immediately put to work in a Covid relief fund. “A gift like this for a nonprofit is equivalent to a billion dollars,” Accion chief executive Luz Urrutia told Forbes.

Accion’s Covid relief fund proved pivotal for one of their longtime customers, chef Reign Free. Two previous Accion loans allowed Free to expand her Oakland, California catering business, The Red Door, from a couple of employees and a van in 2011 to dozens of employees and a 5,000 square foot kitchen before the pandemic. But the Red Door had the rug pulled out from under it when Covid hit. Corporate events, the company’s bread and butter, dried up overnight. Free was forced to lay off employees. The business was teetering on the brink.

Accion’s Covid relief fund provided support to The Red Door, helping Free to pivot her business model. Instead of traditional in-person corporate events, The Red Door began to provide food for virtual conferences by making at-home deliveries to attendees in the Bay Area. Free ensured Covid compliance while continuing to create trademark dishes (like herb-sliced chicken breast and key lime tartlet) made with local, organic ingredients by delivering customized gift boxes and ready-to-heat meals to each conference participant’s home. “These are the kinds of stories Scott’s grant was able to propel,” says Urrutia.

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All ten nonprofit leaders Forbes spoke with say the unrestricted and ultimately more trusting nature of Scott’s philanthropy is the exception, not the norm in their world. Instead, they say, big donations come with the understanding that the money be used for specific purposes and programs. This system forces them to constantly fundraise and use a patchwork approach to finance their missions, rather than letting them focus on accomplishing those missions. Scott alluded to her thinking behind helping groups helping others in her latest Medium post, writing, “We believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use.” Ultimately, Urrutia says, Scott’s philanthropy sends the message that “‘you and your team know how to best deploy the dollars.’”

Like Urrutia, Favianna Rodriguez is working to aid communities of color. She had a tough childhood, she says, having grown up in the 1980s as the child of Peruvian immigrants in San Francisco’s Bay Area amid the onset of the war on drugs and era of mass incarceration. Her Oakland neighborhood was beset by pollution and gang violence. Rodriguez found her escape through art, allowing her to express herself through screen printing, painting murals and making social justice posters. She thought she had found her life’s calling, but says there were a lack of opportunities. So she applied to art school, only to be rejected.

As she reached adulthood, Rodriguez says she realized that all parts of the creative industry—Hollywood, museums, dance, television—were run by white men holding all the power and financing. So she planted the seeds in 2011 of what became The Center For Cultural Power, supporting people of color working at the intersection of arts and activism. But the moment Rodriguez was waiting for came two weeks ago, when Scott donated $11 million to the group.

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“It's not only a significant moment for myself, but it's a moment for BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving art institutions at a time when we have been devastated by the pandemic,” she says. Rodriguez is already putting the funds to work: $8 million will be “redistributed,” she says, to support artists of color in the group’s network. The remaining funds will go to initiatives such as fellowships for artists that include full salary and benefits, support for LGBTQ people of color breaking into Hollywood and administrative tasks like hiring additional staff.

“My hope is that MacKenzie’s style of giving inspires the philanthropic sector, and inspires other donors to give in a way that supports bold, big visions,” she added. “We don't have a lot of time. We're looking at the crisis of the epidemic, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and this moment of racial reckoning. We have to accelerate. We have to quantum leap.”

With reporting by Susan Adams.

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How much money has MacKenzie Scott donated? ›

In 2019, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott made a pledge to donate at least half of her fortune to good causes. A new database launched by her foundation last week proves she is well on her way to making that happen, having donated $14 billion to more than 1,600 non-profit organizations including 128 in California.

What are the fortunes of Mckenzie Scott? ›

As of December 2022, she has a net worth of US$27 billion, owing to a 4% stake in Amazon, the company founded by her ex-husband Jeff Bezos. As such, Scott is the third-wealthiest woman in the United States and the 35th-wealthiest individual in the world.

How to apply for MacKenzie Scott donations? ›

MacKenzie Scott seems to be nonresponsive to traditional approaches (there is no application process) and operates much more like a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). As you probably know, DAFs are not public entities so there's no application process, unless the donor decides to make the process public, which Ms.

Who is the most charitable person in the world 2022? ›

HCL founder Shiv Nadar on Thursday was named as the most generous person in the country with an annual donation of Rs 1,161 crore, the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List 2022 revealed on Thursday.

Who has donated the most money? ›

Greatest philanthropists by amount of USD
NameAmount givenCause
Azim Premji$21 billionEducation, healthcare
Michael Bloomberg$12.7 billionEnvironment, public health, arts, government innovation and education
Li Ka-shing$10.7 billionEducation, healthcare
Andrew Carnegie$9.5 billionLibraries, education, peace
18 more rows


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