There is no billionaire philanthropist who is more captivating, universally adored and utterly mystifying than MacKenzie Scott, the previously semi-anonymous ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, who rocketed to media stardom after walking away from their ribald, dick-pic-“complexifier”-Saudi-conspiracy-laden split with extraordinary dignity and aplomb. In a divided America, Scott borders on Oprah-esque likability for both the left and the right. Liberals celebrated her for funding billions of dollars worth of their causes, and for speaking their language of racial justice. Conservatives saw her as a convincing salve to class warfare: You don’t need to raise taxes! Look at how magnanimous our billionaires are—voluntarily!
Adding to that celebrity was an air of mystery that Scott cultivated throughout her marriage and maintained in its tabloidian aftermath. She hasn’t given an interview in almost a decade. She has no foundation or email address. She remarried a science teacher. All she has is a Medium page, the heaven from which she drops manna upon hundreds of nonprofits, with little advance warning.
Another feat of hers: None of that has ever leaked in advance. Which is why I wanted to let you know that Scott is about to announce her latest tranche of massive donations to nonprofits, I am told, likely this week. Preparations are being made for the big reveal (that is, unless this disclosure pushes back the timeline). I don’t know the exact size, but the previous announcements have detailed almost 500 groups taking in a total of $6 billion.
There are two guiding hands behind Scott’s billions in charity. One is Hether A. Clark, who is Scott’s principal aide in Seattle but has assiduously kept a low profile—seriously, try Googling her—even as her bosses’ giving process was reported on ad nauseum. The other is Tom Tierney, one of the founders of Bridgespan Group, the consulting giant in the world of philanthropy.
It’s obvious but worth saying aloud: while Clark and Tierney might cherish their anonymity and privacy, these aides-de-camp have enormous influence in society. The people who serve the billionaire philanthropists, of course, have their own biases, and those biases almost always are reflected in the funding decisions. So there is value to the public in everyone knowing who they are, even though they might get a few more funding pitches after this.
Two more big-picture thoughts on Scott. First, Scott may be celebrated by liberals for now, but I do wonder how long it will be before some of them begin expecting her to play a more activist role at Amazon, the company that makes all this personal philanthropy possible. Scott owns about 4 percent of Amazon, and last month I flagged that Scott was being solicited by South African activists to convince her ex-husband’s company to not build a development on indigineous lands. Progressives are increasingly unsatisfied with billionaire philanthropists who do not reckon with their so-called complicity in capitalism, and I get the feeling that the petition in South Africa will presage more to come.
Second, I do think the hoopla around Scott has gotten far ahead of reality. Yes, she has clearly shown that it is possible for mega-philanthropists to give away more of their money, and more quickly, than her peers often insist. But the counter-argument to the “Do it today!” crowd has been that there is value to the bureaucracy—to the annoying application process, to the site visits, to the 1,500 people who work, say, at the lumbering Gates Foundation. And if there is a tradeoff between speed and effectiveness, we don’t know yet whether Scott has sacrificed the latter to achieve the former. Maybe she didn’t, but it’s just too early. Let’s talk again in two years.