The New Philanthropy - Conflict of Interest

MacKenzie Scott riled the world of philanthropy last week by donating $4.2 billion to a lot of non-profits doing great work. Good on her.

What raised eyebrows, and rightly so, was that she ignored the usual suspects - Ivy League schools for example - in favor of lesser-known colleges, food banks, Goodwill Industries, YMCAs, Meals-on-Wheels, and others caring for people in the pandemic who most need the money.

This giving raises a whole host of issues. Some great. Some very troubling.

Scott came by her money after her divorce from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Scott walked away with $38 billion that has grown to $60 billion in our stock market, and makes her one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

This wealth is a pittance compared to Bezos, whose Amazon stock rises on the opportunities presented by the pandemic. Get ready for three-hour delivery of your meds by Amazon very soon.

The Scott donations are impressive not just for their size but for the motivation.

In her Medium post, 384 Ways to Help(link is external), explaining the donations, she said she recognizes the American system is what made her rich. And she needs to pay back on that debt. That is significant. A lot different than when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once gave $100 million to Newark, NJ public schools as a cheap PR move.

"This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,’’ Scott said in the post." Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.''

So Scott gathered her advisors and asked the question, how can I pay back the debt I owe to a country that enriched me?

The list is impressive. $50 million for Prairie View University in Texas, $12 million to Navajo Technical University in New Mexico.

And close to home - $9 million for the Vermont Food Bank(link is external), which has emerged as the lifeline holding us together by gathering food and delivering it to local food pantries.

“It was totally unexpected and an absolute shock,’’ said Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles. "That gave way to feelings of humility and gratitude. This gift gives the Foodbank the chance meet peoples’ immediate needs and also listen to communities and together make lasting change.”

The rest of the list is in Scott’s Medium post. It’s worth reading. It is so refreshing to see a major philanthropist look beyond making the rich, well, more rich. Does Harvard really need another turf soccer field? Does Yale really need a bigger life sciences campus? They argue they do in order to lead the world in these fields. But these places already have billion-dollar endowments and provide a life-long, E-ZPass to too many white, privileged prep schoolers. (Like me)

Scott’s act sets an example for others. The big foundations and the wealthy talk a good game of changing society’s built-in unfairness and righting wrongs of the past. And yet here we are - more unfair and unequal than ever.

In Vermont, we have alot of very wealthy people buried in the hills, living lives of quiet opulence while donating to their favorite causes. But the truth is - It’s not nearly good enough.

The Vermont Community Foundation does an excellent job of knitting together donors to good causes and seeding the giving eco-system. National Life, the big insurance company in Montpelier, dotes on its home town in positive ways. And big private donors like the late Bobby Miller and Tony Pomerleau did big things. Several Rockefeller heirs in Vermont do philanthropy as well. But it’s still not nearly good enough.

Whether in Vermont with its aging population crisis or the U.S. with climate change, raging racism, inequality, and a growing oligarchy class, we are not doing nearly enough.

MacKenzie Scott is showing us how to look beyond the usual suspects to build a better society, to “do good,’’ which it’s pretty clear that Yale and Harvard have not done.

On the troubling front is that MacKenzie Scott has $60 billion in the first place; that her ex-husband has much, much more. So much of this work is really OUR job, which is why people form governments. We should not rely on money from the wealthy to plug the holes in health care, education, and the arts created by our broken economic system.

In the end, this is about poverty, the imperfections in our system, and our willingness to tax ourselves to pay for a more humane system of self-government.

The Vermont Food Bank and its brethren are trying to cure poverty. And fixing poverty just does not square with our idolatry of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. We lionize them and admire their vision. Yes, they are very good. But not billions good. And they did it with help, in Bezos’s case from the US Postal Service, which we pay for.

Those billions at Facebook and Amazon should be taxed, and the revenue should build infrastructure, support the arts and education to empower people out of poverty so they can eat during a pandemic.

Maybe Prairie View, with its $60 million, can do it better than Yale and Harvard.


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  • David Flemming
    published this page in Commentary 2020-12-28 15:51:03 -0500