Scott Writes More Checks, But Won’t Tell To Whom

MacKenzie Scott is at it again, only this time she’s not telling. One of the world’s most active philanthropists announced a fourth round of donations to charities but instead of listing the organizations receiving funds and how much, she pontificated on the word philanthropy, and what it means, in a 1,757-word essay posted Wednesday on Medium, titled “No Dollar Signs This Time.”

“It’s not a word I have ever loved or identified with. A lifetime of cultural references associated it with financially wealthy people who believed they knew best how to solve other people’s problems. Since I did not believe myself to be such a person, I had always felt more kinship with people who offered a couch when someone said they needed a couch,” she wrote.

“Somewhere along the line, this big, lovely word had shriveled to describing the humanitarian impulses of less than 1% of the world’s population,” Scott wrote. “I hope any attention from this writing falls on what I have in common with every person who ever acted on an impulse to help someone,” she wrote.

“How much or how little money changes hands doesn’t make it philanthropy. Intention and effort make it philanthropy. If we acknowledge what it all has in common, there will be more of it.”

In her previous posts announcing gifts, Scott often made the point that the focus should not be on her or on the dollar amounts given but the organizations and the work that they do. That was the case this time too. “I want to let each of these incredible teams speak for themselves first if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine,” she wrote.

In three rounds of gifts over the past year or so, Scott has given away some $8.5 billion to 786 organizations:

Scott has used the website Medium to announce her gifts each of the four times she’s made announcements. She’s just as infrequent a user of Twitter but for sharing her news, Tweeting four times and following no one, despite almost 184,000 followers, before yesterday’s announcement.

“What’s getting left out? Please spread the word about the giving no one is talking about in your community,” Scott wrote in her fifth ever Tweet yesterday, linking to her announcement.

Except yesterday, Scott engaged briefly on Twitter after some conversations on the platform within philanthropy circles.

Ben Soskis, a researcher at the Urban Institute and philanthropy historian, said Scott’s announcement touches on a question that many in the sector are grappling with: how to direct to mega-philanthropists the scrutiny their outsized power demands without granting them disproportionate honor and respect. “Scott’s post forces us to confront a deep conundrum: how do we hold the wealthiest donors among us to account without suggesting that their giving is deserving of any more respect than the giving of the rest of us?”

Scott responded via Twitter, thanking Soskis and others. “I wonder if answer (sic) is in encouraging all to share about their giving, emphasizing that all forms play an important role from which everyone can learn and take inspiration. For my own part, I have appreciated seeing interest in understanding what my team is doing. We are in process on a way of sharing details about our first 2+ years of work, including recent gifts, and look forward to sharing that in the year to come in another forum, with the hope it may in a modest way be a resource to some, like the data so many have shared with us. We could not be doing this without this kind of generosity from others. Information, too, is an important form of giving.”

Others also worried that transparency is being lost in Scott not announcing more details about her giving.

Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), which previously received a gift from Scott, said scaling back transparency about gifts to nonprofits won’t help that people aren’t paying enough attention to a broader definition of philanthropy. “I hope she will embrace a less opaque approach – and set up an entity with staff that will discuss her giving and respond to media inquiries. She doesn’t have to do that of course. But I hope she will,” Buchanan said, via Twitter.

Elizabeth Dale, an associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University, said via Twitter that by choosing modesty and not sharing who she’s giving to, Scott may be hurting the very causes she wants to help — and missing the opportunity to highlight issues of inequality.