With Bill Gates’s reputation as our leading philanthropist imperiled by high-profile allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women, fellow billionaire MacKenzie Scott may be taking over the mantle as our new “good billionaire”—the super-rich model citizen whose charitable beneficence justifies the existence of the billionaire class.
Armed with the fortune of Amazon stock she secured in her divorce from Jeff Bezos—her personal wealth is currently estimated at $65 billion—Scott has garnered widespread accolades for her recent philanthropic giving, including $2.75 billion last month to “historically underfunded and overlooked” groups. These no-strings-attached gifts, Scott noted in a post on Medium, were awarded with a “humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands.”
The donations were widely and favorably profiled by the news media, with an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that other billionaires should be more like Scott, “paying their fair share” and hyper-conscious of their privilege.
But this adulation has itself overlooked the contradictions in her philanthropic giving, which seems far more similar to than different from that of her fellow billionaires: larded with tax benefits, based on ill-gotten gains, wholly undemocratic, and unlikely to ever threaten MacKenzie Scott’s grip on the top echelons of the super-wealthy.
And if we removed the rose-colored lenses from our glasses, we might even see Scott’s philanthropy as self-serving at times—like her decision to give large sums of money to buttress the wealthy, professional class of advisers, consultants, and media outlets that advance and defend the special interests of Big Philanthropy.
Two of these recipients—the United Philanthropy Forum and Independent Sector—are currently using their political weight to oppose an effort by Congress to impose new accountability and transparency requirements on charitable giving.
Such opposition aligns closely with Scott’s own efforts to avoid checks and balances. During her short tenure as a philanthropist, Scott has refused to disclose the most basic information about her donations, like how much money she gives to each recipient, or how she decides who are worthy claimants of her charity. She also doesn’t take questions from journalists or engage with outside criticism. Even though Scott receives significant tax benefits from her charity, the public apparently is not allowed to scrutinize her philanthropic giving.
One of the only things we know about Scott’s charitable giving is that she is working closely with the Bridgespan Group, a little-known nonprofit offshoot of the consulting giant Bain & Company.
Bridgespan almost certainly pockets a hefty consulting fee from Scott—the firm would not confirm or deny this—and may also be cultivating other lucrative revenue streams from the relationship. Notably, Scott, while being advised by Bridgespan, has donated money to at least eight of Bridgespan’s recent clients—as well as to Bridgespan itself.
One of these clients is the nonprofit Blue Meridian Partners, which works closely with some of the world’s wealthiest donors to make philanthropic gifts—or as the group calls them, “investments.” Blue Meridian’s most recent annual tax filing reports giving Bridgespan a $3.5 million contract and a $2.5 million grant in 2020. The following year, Scott—while being advised by Bridgespan—donated at least $50 million to Blue Meridian.
Bridgespan refused to answer most questions or comment on its relationship with Scott, but pushed back on the idea that it was steering Scott’s money to its clients.
“For the last 21 years we have worked with more than a thousand compelling and capable nonprofits, so it’s not surprising some would show up on a donor’s list of grants,” a spokesperson noted.
Scott could not be reached to answer questions about the appearance of financial conflicts in her charitable model—or about the powerful and opaque role that professional consultants play in guiding how her vast wealth is distributed.
To be sure, Scott’s donations to Bridgespan and Blue Meridian seem at odds with her claimed commitment to helping the “underfunded and overlooked.”
In its most recent annual tax filing, from 2019, Bridgespan charted $55 million in revenue while paying its president $566,173 a year—and these numbers will likely grow significantly in the years ahead through its work with Scott. Blue Meridian, meanwhile, reports $900 million in revenue in its most recent filings, while its CEO takes home more than $600,000 a year.
Scott has also given funding to other well-heeled groups, like the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which rakes in $200 million a year in revenue and pays its CEO $526,000. Third Sector, an advisory firm, takes in a modest $11 million a year and pays its CEO $300,000 a year.
Another recipient of Scott’s giving, the Solutions Journalism Network, already receives millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation—and its work often is geared toward elevating the role of philanthropy in the news media. The cofounders of the group, David Bornstein and Elizabeth Rosenberg, for example, have several times written favorably about Gates in The New York Times.
Scott’s funding of these groups—what might be called the philanthropy-industrial complex—effectively expands the institutional power of Big Philanthropy, which is also expanding her own influence. And she is doing this at the same time that her personal wealth is expanding.
Earlier this week, as Bloomberg reported, the surging stock price of Amazon had the effect of increasing Scott’s personal wealth by $2.9 billion in a single day—effectively erasing her recent $2.7 billion gift. And since 2019, when Scott divorced Jeff Bezos and embarked on her new career as a philanthropist, her personal wealth has almost doubled, from an estimated $36 billion to $65 billion.
Despite her widely cited promise to keep making charitable donations “until the safe is empty,” so far her philanthropy hasn’t made much of a dent in her accumulating wealth.
And this expanding fortune comes from a company that wields monopoly power in the marketplace, pays very little in taxes, and fights unionization efforts aimed at correcting widely reported labor abuses. These business practices may boost Amazon’s bottom line and enrich Scott, but how do they support her charitable mission to support equity and justice?
It’s one of many questions we can’t ask Scott.
MacKenzie Scott may look and feel like a new kind of billionaire, but we would do well to actually examine her actions and follow the money instead of blithely praising her words and trusting her promises. Until such time as Scott really does open her safe and takes steps to relinquish the privileges that come with being a billionaire, she should be interrogated as an unaccountable and undemocratic figure—an oligarch or a plutocrat—not exalted as a good billionaire.