While Jeff Bezos was building Amazon from a garage into one of the most powerful companies on earth and becoming the richest businessmen of this age, the world knew very little about his wife, MacKenzie, a novelist and a mother of four who helped start Amazon from that garage. Even after their divorce last year, accompanied by a public affair and scandal, thrust MacKenzie Scott (the name she took after the split) into the spotlight, she remained a private and elusive figure. Now, Scott, one of the richest women in the world, a billionaire tens times over, announced in July that she was giving away $1.7 billion to a wide swath of nonprofits, from historically Black colleges to a crisis text line. The gift was stunning in scale and in approach: Scott was making a mark as a new kind of philanthropist.
With a gift of that size, Scott could’ve built a cancer center, had a museum wing named after her, made a college rededicate itself in her name. Or, like virtually every other person who’s made significant amounts of money from tech, she could’ve created an organization to dole out grants based on her notions about how best to fix social issues. She chose another route.
Scott gave 116 grants, all at once, with very few strings attached, to mostly small organizations. They didn’t have to hit metrics she named; they didn’t have to create programs she favored. She even refused thank you notes when nonprofits asked how they could show their gratitude. And she specifically chose organizations led by people with “lived experience,” as Scott put it: women leading women’s groups, people of color leading racial equity groups.
With that, Scott far outpaced her ex-husband in the giving realm, and rewrote the typical playbook for high-profile tech philanthropists — who often operate as if they know best not just in business, but in solving societal problems, too. “Their engineering or technocratic orientation to their business, their wealth creation, transfers over to their philanthropic practices,” says Rob Reich, a Stanford political…