people arranging donations

By now, you have probably heard about the incredibly generous donations totalling $8.5 billion that MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett have made over the last year. The ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott is worth close to $60 billion and her wealth continues to multiply faster than she can give it away. As a member of The Giving Pledge, Scott and her husband have committed to “give the majority of their wealth to address some of society’s most pressing problems” during their lifetimes or in their wills. 

The money MacKenzie Scott and her husband have donated has been given out directly to hundreds of organizations with no strings attached. Most significantly, Scott has tried very hard to keep the focus off of her and on the organizations receiving the gifts. Scott says the teams doing the work for those communities — including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Maine Expansion Arts Fund, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Southwest Texas Junior College and the Youth Empowerment Project — should be in the spotlight. She has also expressed ambivalence about her wealth stating her June 15 Medium post that “it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands.” That being said, it’s hard not to be dumbfounded at Scott’s extraordinary generosity. According to Candid, Scott was responsible for over 20% of all COVID-related donations given last year. 

Of course, MacKenzie Scott’s act of generosity is not without some controversy. Scott’s grants are given to organizations without warning, application, or strings attached. Since Scott has not created any kind of foundation to manage an application process or explain the grant-making methodology, there have been calls from some in the philanthropic community for greater transparency. Additionally, there have been some tragic cases of grifters using Scott’s lack of process to scam unsuspecting folks of their money. 

All of this begs the question, what can anyone learn from MacKenzie Scott’s groundbreaking and breathtaking mega-philanthropy? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have billions of dollars laying around waiting to be donated.

So, what can we mere mortals glean from the giving strategy of the 12th richest person in the world? Is there something that we can glean about leadership through MacKenzie Scott’s unique decisions and actions? I believe there are three major takeaways from this story that we can all learn from:

  • Create your own path – When MacKenzie Scott decided to give money away, she essentially did it the way most of us would. She looked for places that spoke to her and then gave them her money. It’s the size and impact of her donations, of course, that make her private decisions such a public affair. Some would argue that she is, in fact, playing a public role and should provide greater structure and transparency to her philanthropic process. 

    I would argue that the trailblazing quality of her giving outweighs the potential downsides. Rather than develop a large foundation with high administrative and structural costs, Scott decided to develop a largely DIY program. Of course she had teams of folks who researched the effectiveness and impact of her grant recipients, but she’s still making some waves. Revolutionary decisions are never going to be without some downsides, but the impact of her audacity is something to be lifted up and admired. Where can we move into uncharted waters in our own lives and work? The greatest leaders seek to disrupt, shift paradigms, and create a vision for something not done before. You can’t ever do that without breaking some eggs, but MacKenzie Scott’s boldness suggests that it’s worth it. 
  • Diversify your impact – Whether you’re donating billions or deciding which local organization you might give a few hours of service to, there’s always an argument between deep service to one organization or diversifying your gifts amongst several different groups. MacKenzie Scott has clearly decided to share the wealth by giving gifts to hundreds of organizations. One could argue there are few organizations that could actually handle a billion-dollar gift, so by necessity she has to diversify. 

    However, I would suggest that we should all think about diversifying our impact in how we approach philanthropy, business, or leadership. Professionalization often leads to specialization, and as we develop we can become siloed in our work, philanthropy, and even our thinking. How often are we told to “stay in our lane”? Scott’s gift-giving suggests that we all need to think about diversifying how we approach life. In work, look for new avenues and areas in which to contribute. In life, branch out from your tried and true means of interacting with others. In your volunteer work or philanthropic giving, look for other organizations through which you can make a difference. Deep commitment to one thing is always valued, but who knows what kind of impact you can make when you try something new.

  • Lead with humility – Undoubtedly, the most striking thing about MacKenzie Scott’s giving – besides the extraordinary numbers – is the fact that she has diligently worked to decenter herself in the process. The title of her Medium post announcing the latest round of giving is “Seeding by Ceding.” Scott has not given any interviews on her philanthropy. She hasn’t shown up at any ribbon-cuttings for buildings with her name on them. She hasn’t demonstrated any desire for recognition at all. In a world full of blowhards and attention-getting, Scott’s humility is awe inspiring. 

For those of us in leadership positions, MacKenzie Scott’s philanthropic choices should remind us to lead by listening, to decenter ourselves in power dynamics, and to be servant leaders. Even if we do not have her billions of dollars, we should remember Martin Luther King’s powerful words in his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” sermon: “everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” One of Scott’s recipients, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, wrote that her generosity embodies the indigenous values that are central to who they are: share what you have, giving makes you richer, don’t take more than you need, and finally, see how all things are related. Words to live by, no matter how much you can give.