Dear Commons Community,
MacKensie Scott has built a philanthropic operation that is notable not just for the monumental size and speed of its gifts but also for its seemingly impenetrable secrecy. The New York Times had an article yesterday entitled, The Fortunes of MacKensie Scott, that tried to penetrate that secrecy. Here is an excerpt.
“The billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott once recounted, in a television interview, a Chinese folk tale sometimes known as “The Lost Horse.” The story is about the reversals of fortune a farmer experiences after his prized stallion runs away. It can also be read as a summary of her philosophy.
“You never know where it’s going to end up. Good luck, bad luck, it’s not the way that we really need to look at things,” she told the television host Charlie Rose in 2013, after relating the parable to him.
The hardships we experience “are the things that we’ll look back and be the most grateful for,” she said during the interview. “They take us where we need to go.”
Her own life has taken sharp turns that have shaped her choices, including her extraordinary leap into philanthropy, which in under three years has exceeded $12 billion in grants.
A privileged child, she left a Connecticut boarding school after her family declared bankruptcy. In college, a loan from a friend helped keep her from dropping out. That allowed her to carry on studying creative writing under the acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison, who would become her mentor and help her achieve her own life’s goal of becoming a novelist as well.
And as a recent college graduate, working in recruitment at a financial firm, she married the man in the office next to hers, Jeff Bezos, and moved to Seattle to help him pursue his dream of an online retail empire — one that would make each of them among the wealthiest people in the world even after their marriage dissolved.
A few months after their divorce was finalized in 2019, a new shell company was quietly set up in Delaware called Lost Horse. Soon, representatives from Lost Horse were calling nonprofits around the country about multimillion-dollar donations from an anonymous giver.
The secret benefactor turned out, of course, to be Ms. Scott. Her sudden spate of giving has now reached 1,257 groups, from little-known charities to mainstream organizations like Habitat for Humanity, which last month received $436 million, her largest known gift.
The $12 billion in grants she has announced add up to more than the total lifetime giving of the late Eli Broad and his widow, Edythe, renowned for their generosity in Los Angeles, not to mention far richer couples, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Her ex-husband, Mr. Bezos, has pledged $10 billion to combat climate change. Forbes in January calculated that he had paid out $2.1 billion in charitable giving so far.
But as Ms. Scott’s fame for giving away money has grown, so, too, has the deluge of appeals for gifts from strangers and old friends alike. That clamor may have driven Ms. Scott’s already discreet operation further underground, with recent philanthropic announcements akin to sudden lightning bolts for unsuspecting recipients.
Attempts to reach Ms. Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, a chemistry teacher, for this article by phone, email and letter, directly and through intermediaries, were met with silence.
Instead, The New York Times relied on interviews with more than two dozen friends, teachers, former colleagues and acquaintances from every chapter of her life, as well as public records and the rare interviews Ms. Scott has given, generally in conjunction with the publication of one of her novels. This article is also based on previously unpublished letters between Ms. Scott and Ms. Morrison, kept in the Nobel laureate’s archive at the Princeton University library.
“I guess the only way I will find out what will not work for me in life is by trying it,” she wrote to Ms. Morrison in September 1992, a few months after graduation and at a pivotal moment for her future. Waitressing in New York had proved more grueling than waiting tables in Princeton during college, leaving her too tired to write.
“I found myself with unpredictable and small chunks of time during which I either collapsed from exhaustion and frustration, or ruminated over the excruciating monotony of making and selling sandwiches,” she wrote, “and worried about how I might pay my rent with the nickels they gave me in exchange for my ennui.”
The week before, she had started work at an investment firm, with her future husband, Mr. Bezos.
Three decades after worrying about making rent, and even in the wake of her recent gifts, Ms. Scott, 52, has a net worth that hovers around $50 billion, according to Forbes magazine. She has set about dispersing her enormous fortune with unprecedented speed and directness to frontline charities and nonprofits with a stated emphasis on advancing social justice and combating inequality, all while trying to keep herself out of the spotlight.
“Putting large donors at the center of stories on social progress is a distortion of their role,” she wrote in an essay last year, one in a series of deliberate public communiqués on her giving.
While Ms. Scott may be seeking to stay in the background, her funds are reshaping the nonprofit sector in the United States and beyond. She has become arguably the most consequential philanthropist in the world right now — one who is very much operating on her own terms.
She has indeed become the most consequential philanthropist in the world!