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Reading Between the Lines of MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett’s Gifts

This is a rare moment in the history of philanthropy in which we can see a new paradigm emerging.

MacKenzie Scott gift - reading between the lines Photo courtesy of Mikael Blomkvist via Pexels

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett took pains to avoid the spotlight following their recent donation of a collective $2.75 billion to 286 social impact organizations across America (including New Profit, the organization I co-lead). In their letter announcing the gifts, they wrote, “Putting large donors at the center of stories on social progress is a distortion of their role.”

Of course, the people at the center of social progress always have been and always will be the people on the ground doing the work. But it’s hard to overstate the impact of large donors in communities working for change—especially donors like Scott and Jewett, who, in the way their grantmaking is done, advance counter-cultural ideas that can shape the future of the philanthropy sector at large. 

This is a rare moment in the history of philanthropy in which we can see a new paradigm emerging, focused on unrestricted gifts across the board; a clear focus on supporting organizations with leaders of color and strong equity orientations; unprecedented grants to build social sector infrastructure; and explicitly naming the importance of health and well-being of social sector leaders and employees. If more philanthropists metabolized these ideas and shifted their giving accordingly, we believe America would make a huge leap toward realizing the full promise of its founding ideals. So, let’s get into it a bit.

With their recent giving, including two other multi-billion-dollar outlays over the last 18 months, Scott and Jewett are part of a lineage of transformative philanthropy that stretches back at least 120 years in the U.S. to Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth and the birth of modern notions about charity. Carnegie’s giving was driven by the notion that giving people a way to better themselves and lift themselves up was the key to progress, and he backed up this approach by singlehandedly funding the building or improvement of more than 2,500 libraries around the world (among many other things to this day).

Around the same time, Madam C.J. Walker, one of the first Black millionaires in America, committed herself to racial uplift, giving to organizations that served Black people and were often run by Black leaders. Unlike Carnegie and other contemporary philanthropists, she didn’t create a foundation to give away her riches; her work to advance racial equity was embedded into the way she ran her company and her day-to-day life. In the 1920s, a little-known philanthropist named Charles Garland used an inheritance he initially intended to renounce to make an unprecedented gift to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—and helped catalyze the early movement for equal educational opportunities for Black children and the landmark Supreme Court victory in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.

Later, the Ford Foundation became one of the earliest funders to support systemic approaches to social change through its backing of large-scale research, legal advocacy, capacity building, innovation and other initiatives during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The growth of information technology wealth helped usher in the social entrepreneurship movement in the 1990s, infusing a new sense of vision, innovation and disruption into philanthropy that continues today. And more recently, the creation of the Giving Pledge and the proliferation of donor-advised funds has created a new vehicle and new momentum for large-scale philanthropy.

Over time, many of the above examples have raised questions about efficacy and equity, but for better or worse, they speak to funders forging new paths and influencing the broader field of philanthropy. Drawing lessons from those who gave before to shape their approach, Scott and Jewett are forging a new path very much their own, grounded in a several key ideas: 

  • Seeding by Ceding. In its title and much of its content, Scott and Jewett’s letter focuses on something revolutionary in philanthropy: the idea that funders should defer to the people and organizations doing the work on the ground. New Profit’s recent research showed that leaders of color in philanthropy receive a paltry fraction of overall grants and strategic support. It’s these leaders who have the knowledge and experience to solve their communities’ most pressing challenges, and by highlighting the expertise of organizations on the ground, Scott and Jewett are seeding a transformative idea about where real power resides.
  • Unrestricted Funding Across the Board. Successful ideas and companies have no trouble attracting the no-strings-attached “growth capital” they need to pursue scale, but the same has never been true in philanthropy. For a century, most donors have restricted their giving in ways that make it hard for most nonprofit organizations to build capacity in their organizations to pursue impact at scale. Scott and Jewett flipped this formula, providing only unrestricted gifts based on the notion that “the teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use.”
  • Backbone for Philanthropy. Recognizing that we need a stronger social sector overall to meet the moment and achieve transformative change, Scott and Jewett did something that has never been done before: They provided catalytic, scaled funding to “social sector infrastructure organizations,” like New Profit, that “empower community leaders, support grassroots organizing and innovation, measure and evaluate what works, and disseminate information so that community leaders, elected officials, volunteers, employees and donors at every level of income can make informed decisions about how to partner and invest.”
  • Community Care and Healing. One of the most radical pieces of Scott and Jewett’s narrative around the giving was their simple message to social impact leaders: “Stop having to work every weekend. Get some sleep.” That’s easier said than done, but the mere idea that donors would encourage self-care among grantees is powerful.

Scott and Jewett are by no means the first donors to follow these various pathways in their giving, but the sheer size of their gifts and the strategic integration of all of these ideas is a model for philanthropists large and small in the future. The core idea behind all of this is shifting power and agency to leaders, organizations and communities that have first-hand experience, untapped insight and wisdom and innovative solutions for transforming inequitable systems in America. 

From Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth to Scott and Jewett’s ideas about how to de-center wealth, the philanthropic sector is due for a reawakening that reimagines the relationship between donors, social impact leaders and constituents and brings philanthropy closer to its original meaning—a love of humanity.