The Future of the MacKenzie Machine

mackenzie scott
Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
October 4, 2022

The union of MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett captured the world’s imagination like a fairy tale—the story of a commoner marrying tech royalty and living happily ever after, all the while bestowing their largesse on an untold number of charitable organizations and philanthropies. Incredibly, it was only three years ago that MacKenzie split from Jeff Bezos as he kindled a new romance with Lauren Sanchez. MacKenzie, meanwhile, reinvented herself post-divorce as a veritable brand name in her own right, signing The Giving Pledge as an individual, sans partner, and quickly deploying billions of dollars in donations—manna-from-heaven moneybombs, revealed biannually on Medium, that electrified the philanthropic world.

MacKenzie became even more of a public fascination when news emerged that she had quietly remarried, in 2021, to Jewett, a head-shaven science teacher at the elite Lakeside School, which the Scott-Bezos kids attended. Indeed, the feel-good story of their elopement only became public knowledge when a Wall Street Journal Amazon beat reporter was alerted to an unannounced change on The Giving Pledge’s then-spartan website.

Fittingly, then, it was also a Giving Pledge website update that revealed that the fairy tale had come to an end: after about 18 months of marriage, Scott and Jewett are getting divorced (the filing is here). Jewett’s Giving Pledge letter—a sweet Princess Bride-esque message about his sudden windfall-by-second-marriage—has disappeared into the ether. I’m guessing Jewett will have some funds for his own work or whatnot, but the big question in the high-dollar charity world—a milieu in which MacKenzie maintains an otherworldly aura—has been what this meant for the world’s greatest philanthropic experiment.

MacKenzie, after all, has become renowned for her Tiger Global-like efforts to rapidly give away tens of billions of dollars—“until the safe is empty,” as she has put it. Most bigtime philanthropists disburse their fortunes so carefully, and so slowly, that the interest on their principal can exceed their generosity. Others, like Bill and Melinda French Gates, construct globe-spanning foundations with thousands of employees to oversee the distribution of their wealth, or structure empires and trusts that are designed to outlive them. The conceit of the philanthropic establishment is that there is virtue in patience, in the bureaucracy, in the R.F.P.s, in the site visits, and in the years of trial-and-error that precede giving-at-scale. MacKenzie, unique among philanthropists in her weight class, has been betting that’s all an excuse for inaction.

Over the last year, MacKenzie had intentionally painted these efforts as a joint venture with her new husband. She referred to “Dan” in her Medium posts as her partner; nonprofits thank both of them in paeans to their benefactors; there’s the joint Giving Pledge signatures, etc. And yet… most people don’t buy it. “Those in the philanthropic-industrial complex were being too cute by half by referring to ‘MacKenzie and Dan.’ It was always just her, and it belittles her/makes her smaller by lumping her partner in with it,” argued one philanthropic adviser over text. “Again, they’re kind of responsible for that themselves, but it was always just MacKenzie’s money and vision—does her a disservice by pretending otherwise.” One of the adviser’s competitors at a different firm put it this way: “Not sure he ever really influenced the giving approach significantly … His name is rarely/never in the discourse about what ‘she’ is doing or how prospective grantees can reach ‘her.’ Never ‘them’ or ‘him.’ Noticeably different than, say, Bill and Melinda or Mark and Priscilla.”

The reality, undramatic as it may be, is that the MacKenzie Machine will hum along just fine without Jewett—just as it did for the two years that it doled out billions before they got married in the first place. While it’s true that MacKenzie’s operation doesn’t have the thousands or hundreds of aides and employees that fill places like the Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, it was always a romanticized fairytale that it was just her and Dan making decisions around the kitchen table. MacKenzie has a small full-time staff at her slowly-growing family office, called Lost Horse, led by Carlos Rodrigues and staffed with some advisers from Melinda’s shop, Pivotal Ventures. She also relies heavily on people like Alison Powell and Jeff Bradach at the philanthropic consultancy at the Bridgespan Group, the Bain & Co. spinoff that sources nonprofit ideas and vets them for MacKenzie’s team. Was Dan involved? Sure. But this is a professional operation that caters to a single client, MacKenzie, to enact her vision, not his.