When MacKenzie Scott revealed in December that she had donated $4.2 billion of her fortune in the preceding four months — on top of the $1.7 billion she had given away earlier in 2020 — the internet exploded with praise.
That and a dash of side-eye toward her ex-husband, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, who appeared in the news in 2020 in articles about employee walkouts at Amazon, complaints about worker safety and criticism of the company’s environmental impact. (Those bringing the final charge were only partly mollified by the $10 billion initiative Bezos established to fight climate change last February.)
Philanthropy watchers lauded Scott’s speed, the research she put into her decisions, the no-strings-attached messaging that accompanied her gifts, and the wide scope of her chosen beneficiaries, which included historically Black colleges and universities, community colleges, and YMCA and YWCA organizations.
Others saw something of a post-divorce glow-up in the philanthropic acts of the novelist formerly known as Ms. Bezos.
An article in Vanity Fair argued that Scott “got even” with Bezos after his long-term affair became public “by doing what he does not: sharing his unbelievable, unconscionable, indescribable wealth with those he makes his money off of, i.e. everyone else in the world.”
“Not since Jennifer Aniston has a wronged woman done so much right,” a New York Post columnist wrote in an opinion piece that contrasted Scott’s charity with what some see as the close-handedness of Bezos, whose wealth grew by an estimated 63% during the first nine months of the pandemic.
Scott’s donations followed her signing of the Giving Pledge in 2019, which she did less than two months after announcing on Twitter that her divorce from Bezos was finalized. Signatories of the pledge promise to distribute half of their wealth during their lifetime or in their will, a commitment Scott’s ex-husband has very noticeably not made.
Though the example of Scott is exceptional in many ways, she is among an emerging group of female philanthropists, some of whose fortunes are tied to their husbands, who are assuming more prominence in public life.
Wealthy women giving their money and time away is nothing new (see: Brooke Astor, Nan Kempner, Liz Thompson and Agnes Gund). But for many decades, those who were married did so in their husbands’ names, or more quietly, without wide recognition.
A study published in 1985 that followed 70 female volunteers in “high society” for several years found that the unpaid work the women did was often unrecognized or belittled.
“The effort that goes into motivating volunteers and building community spirit can be dismissed as ‘merely’ sociable interchange, related to women’s gender roles and natural propensities, requiring no real skills,” wrote the study’s author, Arlene Kaplan Daniels.
“Women who engaged in philanthropy were the behind-the-scenes volunteers, the unrecognized work,” said Debra Mesch, a professor of philanthropy at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Women’s Philanthropy Institute. “The men were the faces.”
But in recent years, with the rise of women in the workplace and the growth of movements centering their experience, women’s giving has become a subject of study by professionals in the nonprofit world and by academics. Women have more money than ever before and they’re continuing to accumulate it, and quickly. By 2023, women’s global wealth will rise to at least $81 trillion, according to a Boston Consulting Group analysis. In 2010, that number was $34 trillion.
“Women are more visible in philanthropy today because of the women who have been fighting for a seat at every table, across every industry, for decades,” Dr. Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in an email. “We stand on their shoulders and keep doing the work.”
“I have been convening women philanthropy leaders who are intentional about better fundraising practices with women since 2015. I used to be able to count them on my hands,” said Kathleen Loehr, the principal at Kathleen Loehr and Associates, who consults organizations on how to adapt their fundraising practices to women’s preferences. “Now we have 63 members.”
“Gender matters in philanthropy,” Mesch said. “Men and women engage in philanthropy differently. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.”
For example, research has shown that single women give more than single men (a Barclay’s report said that among high-net-worth individuals in America, women give nearly twice as much as men do); that in marriage, women socialize their husbands into giving; and that women are more likely than men to engage in group giving.
Their Names First
“In the older generation, it was pretty easy,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center on Philanthropy at the Graduate Center at CUNY. “You made a big gift to the business school where your husband got his degree, and you stamped his name on it.”
McCarthy pointed to women like Margaret Olivia Sage, who opened a foundation in her husband’s name in 1907, or Louisine Havemeyer, who gave an art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art under her husband’s name despite her crucial role in acquiring it. “They felt it was their husbands’ money, and trustees made sure they remembered that,” McCarthy said.
But women like Scott and Melinda Gates, McCarthy said, “are women who want to be seen and want to be heard in their own right. They have individual identities as philanthropists. You can see it in the kinds of things they’re funding.”
Sometimes the identity they carve out stands in stark contrast to the man they have been long associated with. Such is the case with Scott, and with Laurene Powell Jobs, whose husband, Steve Jobs, was a noted not-philanthropist. While he was alive, Powell Jobs founded College Track, an organization that helps underprivileged young people get into college.
In recent years, Powell Jobs has done even more, contributing her voice, time and money to issues she cares about, including immigration and education. She has commissioned the director of “An Inconvenient Truth” to make a documentary on "Dreamers," young immigrants illegally brought to the country as children, and paid for ads in support of them. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review estimated that Powell Jobs has invested $250 million into journalism through her company, Emerson Collective.
Though Gates kept a low profile for many years, in 2008, she “came out” as a public figure with her first media profile, in Fortune. In the article, friends of the Gateses credited Melinda Gates with Bill Gates’ turn to philanthropy. Without her, he said in the profile, “I don’t think I’d do as much of it.”
In recent years, Melinda Gates has forged her own path with significant projects: She founded her own investment company, Pivotal Ventures, in 2015; she helped found Maverick Collective, an organization that brings together female philanthropists, in 2016; and in 2019, she published “Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” a book that’s partly about finding her voice.
In response to questions about the morality of having as much wealth as the Gateses do, even if they are giving it away, Melinda Gates has distanced herself from the famously expensive house she lives in, subtly reminding readers that the $100 million mansion was Bill’s idea.
Like the Gateses, Chan and Zuckerberg lead their philanthropic investment company together, but Chan is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And it’s her name that goes first. (Nonetheless, articles about the initiative tend to put Zuckerberg’s name in the headlines, not Chan’s.)
Outside the Initiative, Chan has established an identity as an education advocate and entrepreneur, funding Summit Learning, a program that uses online tools to customize education, and helping found the Primary School in East Palo Alto, California. (Summit Learning has been criticized by students and parents, and a $100 million donation that Chan and Zuckerberg made in 2010 to Newark, New Jersey, public schools was seen by some as a failure.)
‘The Importance of Just Asking’
“Our best practices were built over time based on the prototypical donor of the ’70s and ’80s. Male, white and straight,” Loehr said. “Those were the ones who were being seen then.”
In researching 6,490 organizations before settling on 384 of them, Scott and her advisers did what Loehr said a lot of underrepresented donors tend to do: research a cause or an organization in depth before giving it money.
“They want to see how their philanthropy will benefit and influence society, culture and their communities,” said Angelique Grant, a senior consultant and vice president at Aspen Leadership Group, a firm that consults nonprofits on diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s not the mere fact that you are, for instance conducting research or creating a program, but how is that research or program impacting their community? The Black community or the Asian community?”
“Despite their successes, these donors are still people of color, they’re still women and they’re still subject to the effects of racism and sexism. They can’t escape that until we have social change. That gives them different insight to the organization and the causes they’re supporting,” said Tyrone Freeman, an assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and author of “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow.”
“You have to reach out and take them seriously. For a long time that wasn’t happening when it comes to women and people of color.”
In 2014, a group of female Dartmouth College alumnae decided to try to persuade 100 women to give $100,000 or more to the college fund. The goal was ambitious, but by changing some strategies, like making their requests more nuanced and less transactional and sharing more information about the long-term effects of the donations, the group managed to recruit 104 women in four months (in total, 273 women have signed on).
Another campaign at the college asked women to give $1 million or more each. A past attempt, in the early 2000s, had succeeded with four donors. This time, 87 women joined.
“One of the things we have learned is the importance of just asking,” said Laurel Richie, chair of the board of trustees at Dartmouth. “There were women who had not felt that they had been asked directly, or invited to be part of this kind of initiative.” Seeing collective giving inspired more giving, Richie said.
She also realized that the network the female donors built through their donations was as important to them as any quantifiable measure of success.
“I have sensed impact being really important to this group, not just in terms of the amount raised and the number of scholarships, but in terms of community,” Richie said. “Community is really important and helping build this philanthropic muscle in the next generation of women.”
Research has shown that women tend to give in groups more often than men, particularly through giving circles, in which dozens of people pool their money to give to charities, nonprofits and political campaigns.
Groups targeting female donors have grown in size and number during the last decades. For example, two decades ago the Women’s Donor Network had 80 members and now has 270, while the Women’s Funding Network has grown from 20 to 120 over several decades and now invests $420 million annually in gender equity.
Melinda Gates has also encouraged collective giving: In 2016, with Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, she founded the Maverick Collective, an organization of women who have contributed at least $1 million to a women’s health project. Even Scott, who gave on her own, implemented a call-to-action by publishing, on Medium, her strategy and the organizations to which she donated.
Though giving circles are a more recent phenomenon, collective giving has been a way of fundraising for centuries, particularly among Black women.
“I see giving circles as a late-20th-century, early-21st-century version of what many Black women were doing decades ago through clubs and sororities where they paid dues, provided social insurance, raised money to help someone through a difficult time,” Freeman said.
Like Dartmouth College, Williams College found out that asking women directly and encouraging them to donate as a team yields high results. After realizing that women were being asked for a certain type of annual gift half as often as men were, the college introduced a new initiative in late 2019, asking 100 female alumnae to donate $100,000 apiece to the college by 2025. Until last year, only 10 women had ever made such a donation to Williams College in one year.
This time, 37 women did. (Williams College sent them a copy of Gates’ “The Moment of Lift” before the holidays.)
“In my early time, there were excuses for why women don’t give or are afraid to give,” said Megan Morey, vice president for College Relations at Williams College. For example, she said, there was a now-antiquated notion, referred to as “bag lady syndrome,” that “women didn’t make the kinds of gifts that men did even if they had the wealth, out of fear that they would one day lose it all. They didn’t want to end up on the street.”
Today, Morey sees that women are more comfortable talking about giving away money and creating space for themselves as public figures.
“These headlines with MacKenzie Scott are so exciting and phenomenal,” Morey said. “Women have this agency now, and they’re giving in creative and super-impactful ways.”