Mackenzie Scott, while giving out billions of dollars at an impressive click, is starting to ask very smart questions about philanthropy.
Earlier this year I criticized Mackenzie Scott for publishing an article about her own philanthropy. My concern wasn’t that she was telling us about her largesse, but that her purported purpose in writing was to “cede focus” on the ultra-wealthy and shift it to the recipient organizations. Strange, I thought, to write about your giving to “cede focus.”
One way to cede focus, I suggested, is to not write about yourself. You could give money without telling everyone about it.
Ms. Scott is back to writing about philanthropy in recent weeks, but I must admit that her latest musings are quite interesting. With regard to sharing her largesse, she notes that she’s decided to stop indicating how much money she is giving to recipient groups. She wants to let them share the news “if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine.”
It’s a reasonable approach and a good hope (even though we would be naïve to think the media will soon overcome their obsession with billionaires and their goings-on).
A BIG, LOVELY WORD
That’s all fine, but more interesting than Scott’s philanthropy—however good it may be—is Scott’s ruminating on what philanthropy is.
Anyone fed on Scripture growing up is familiar with the story of the “widow’s mite.” Jesus tells a story of rich men giving large sums of money to the temple, followed by a poor widow who gives all that she has, just a few humble coins.
The widow, Christ tells us, is the generous exemplar, for she contributes not out of her abundance, but out of her poverty. Giving out of pain and sacrifice, she gives out of love. Scott echoes this familiar story, asking her readers, “Which is a more ‘generous donation of money to good causes’ — 100 dollars from someone who earns 50,000 a year, or 100,000 from someone with 50 million in the bank?”
It’s not a new question, but it’s a good one.
This question arises as she laments that the “big, lovely word” philanthropy has been “narrowed” with the role of love taken out of it. Why? Well, because the only people we recognize as “philanthropists” are the “financially wealthy people who believe they know best how to solve other people’s problems.”
Giving out of their abundance—though not always giving abundantly—their philanthropy is born less of love than of leveraging their alleged expertise in new domains.
Scott is trying to push back on this notion—first, that “philanthropists” are only the top 1% of donors; and second, that “writing checks” is the only form of philanthropy. She echoes an insight my colleague, Matt Gerken, floated in Philanthropy Daily last year: that much of philanthropy goes unaccounted for, insofar as it is person-to-person: cash to a friend or donated labor to an elderly neighbor.
When Scott accounts for giving outside of trackable financial giving, the size of American charity swells from $450 billion to $1 trillion. (Unfortunately, she provides no citations, but the data seems believable.)
CHARITY, PHILANTHROPY, AND “GIVING”
These are smart questions that Scott is asking. I’m glad to see “the world’s most powerful woman” asking them. But what she is missing is the semantic history of “charity” and “philanthropy.”
Lamenting the “semantic narrowing” of philanthropy that excludes so much more humanitarian work, Scott notes that she likes to refer to her work as “giving.” It’s less strategic and controlling, less self-congratulatory; and she wants it to fit herself into the broader nexus of support—more like lending someone a spot on the couch for a couple nights.
In opting for a new moniker—a “giver” rather than a “philanthropist”—Scott is not only choosing the better path as a giver, one that better supports the organizations she wants to support. She also stumbles across Jeremy Beer’s important insight in his 2015 book, Philanthropic Revolution.
“Philanthropy,” as we use it today, is something of a neologism. A product of the industrial age, it was meant specifically to contrast with what used to be known as charity. “The new philanthropists,” Beer writes, “contrasted their approach to that of the old purveyors of charity. They were rational investors and social engineers. The charity providers . . . were muddle-headed weaklings who just made things worse for everyone.”
It’s no criticism to say that Scott’s insight isn’t novel. It’s an important insight, and because of her frustrations and good instincts, she is unwittingly discovering an older—and better—way to give.
Scott may not be in a position to “give out of her poverty,” like the poor widow, but she is in a position to give charitably, out of love, like the poor widow. Her giving, her charity—at least as she tells it—is without the hubris of modern rationalism that, in seeking to transform so much, often causes unnecessary and collateral damage.
THINKING ABOUT GIVING
I doubt I agree with all or even most of Scott’s philanthropic decisions, but I hope she continues to think out loud about charity and giving. And I hope that others take note.
In stripping herself of the hubris of the philanthropists, Scott strips away so much of the barriers to effective grantmaking. We have written much recently about the “pro-grantee revolution.” At least in her rhetoric, Scott well understands this revolution, both the benefits and how to do it.
Once she finds an organization she wants to support—with a paid staff who help her find the groups she’s interested in—she “offer[s] them all the money up front and then step[s] out of their way, encouraging them to spend it however they choose.” What a novel idea, trusting those doing the work to know where to spend the money!
Even when she shares her notes for her philanthropy’s forthcoming website, she shows a commitment to trusting her grantees with information sharing, and even delayed information sharing. It will be interesting to see the new website and to continue watching how her giving pans out.
At this stage, Scott looks like an exemplary donor, both in her philosophy of giving (trusting the recipient and putting them first) and in her desire to give out of love more than social change (even if some of her giving looks more like social change than love). I earlier criticized her for attracting attention while saying she didn’t want it; but if she continues asking these questions, I hope she continues attracting attention—and setting an example for other mega-donors, as well as the rest of us.