Inside MacKenzie Scott’s Zillion-Dollar Giving Machine

MacKenzie Scott
Photo by Jörg Carstensen via Getty
Theodore Schleifer
January 11, 2022

Something funny happened just before Christmas. MacKenzie Scott had returned to the spotlight to showcase her latest work and thinking about philanthropy, once again writing lyrically and provocatively on Medium about inequality and virtue. These twice-a-year reflections have become a celebrated ritual for the world’s fourth-wealthiest woman. That is why I was humored to find the Princeton-educated novelist somewhat sheepishly returning to the web just 48 hours later—first in a tweet, then in a postscript—brandishing screenshots of passages that she wished she had not edited out of her initial essay. MacKenzie Scott, like the rest of us, had been Misunderstood on the Internet.   

What ensued wasn’t just a concession, or a plan gone awry. It was a rare display—really, the most vivid since she blasted Brad Stone’s biography of her then-husband Jeff Bezos with an iconic one-star Amazon review in 2013—that Scott was human, and not just some uber-polished deity hovering over the nonprofit sector. In her effort to not be the story, she had declined to offer any new details about her $9 billion-and-counting in donations, which of course had become a micro-drama itself. It was a tension I could sympathize with. I know many philanthropists who wrestle with how to be transparent without grandstanding or sounding like a showboat. I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

But the incident crystallized a contradiction about Scott. She is America’s single largest philanthropist—the singular force behind what I believe to be the most fascinating, even radical experiment in philanthropy today—and yet she remains an enigma, transparent in some remarkable ways and yet totally opaque in others. Every few weeks for the last two years, I receive a message from some friend, source or passerby asking the same question: How do they get in front of her? Scott’s enterprise, after all, has no website, no publicly identified staff or philanthropic vehicle. There is no way to even say hello, except to futilely plead in the comments section of one of her Medium posts, which some people do.