MacKenzie Scott is finding her way as a generous philanthropist, which is good to see. There are some wrinkles to iron out.
If you wanted focus attention away from yourself and on someone else, would you write an article about your own great work?
Well, that’s what MacKenzie Scott did earlier this month, in a Medium.com piece announcing that she was making $2.74 billion in grants to nonprofits.
Scott was allegedly attempting to criticize the wealth, influence, and attention of the uber wealthy. Of course, the irony is obvious enough: here’s an announcement about the influence and self-importance of the ultra-wealthy, from an ultra-wealthy person sharing about her influence.
The irony runs even deeper. Scott’s announcement begins by lamenting the fact that billionaire philanthropy so often celebrates the billionaire donor and not the organization doing the important work. But, funny enough, I found out about her announcement from one of her grantees that sent a press release.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DONOR
That press release didn’t run “Our organization does important work and will continue doing so.” On the contrary, it ran, “MacKenzie Scott announced over $2 billion in grants to nonprofits.”
So Scott writes a piece saying she wants to “de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others,” but those others want to just give it back to her. The irony is rich.
(As a side note, a good way to cede focus is to just stop talking. It’s an insincere attempt to “cede focus” that begins with attracting focus. But the problem here is more than just insincerity.)
Scott’s announcement is a call to put organizations, not donors, at the center of stories about their good work. Unfortunately, that’s horrendous advice. In order for nonprofits to do their good work, they need donors. And do you know where donors like to be? At the center of stories. If you need evidence, look at the present subject: Scott’s announcement about her $2.74 billion grant. Who’s at the center of that story?
It might be a desirable world where nonprofit news focused only on good nonprofits, but that desirable world isn’t our real world, where celebrating and honoring donors is key to donor cultivation. And donor cultivation is key to making nonprofits thrive.
Fortunately, not all of Scott’s grantees are taking her advice. The nonprofit whose email list I’m on, for instance, didn’t heed her advice. They put Scott at the center; they told me about her generous gift and the role she is playing is advancing their mission. That press release ran against her stated desire, but it made her look good (and who doesn’t like looking good?) and it got eyes on her announcement article that they linked to.
My issue with the announcement, then is her insincerity, but more than that, her bad advice which, if followed, would damage the organizations she values. I doubt she and I agree about what makes for a worthy nonprofit, but I still hate to see an organization suffer from her bad advice.
That said, Scott’s statement wasn’t all bad. Scott, her husband, and “a constellation of researchers and administrators” did the research to identify worth organizations. I wish she could be more nimble—that might be one way to “de-emphasize” and “cede focus”!—but I was glad to see her interest in local knowledge. I don’t know how successfully she trusted those with “on-the-ground insights,” but at least the lip service paid here is smart. Who knows how self-important and untrusting her “constellation of researchers” were, but at least she knows to say that local knowledge matters. That’s a start.
What’s more important, though, was her description of the grants. Here was her best line and most important insight: “we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose.”
That’s great advice and good giving. However frustrating her announcement was, it was an attempt at promoting charity—real charity that values and trusts nonprofits, and gives generously to let them do their work, the work they know how to do without your input.
If Scott will practice what she preached—not putting the donors at the heart of the story, trusting local knowledge, and giving large gifts for organizations to use where they need it—she will be a great philanthropist.
It would be great to see more mega-donors making unrestricted gifts, trusting their grantees, and ceding focus to the organizations—even as those grantees labor to put the donor at the center of the story.