When Byron Sanders first got the email, he wasn’t completely sure it was legitimate. Sanders is the president and CEO of Big Thought, the Dallas nonprofit dedicated to empowering young people in marginalized communities. His organization certainly welcomes philanthropic gifts, but the email was from somebody he didn’t know, who said they represented donors considering making an especially big donation.
“This kind of stuff just usually doesn’t happen,” Sanders says. “I was making sure it wasn’t a phishing scam.”
It wasn’t a scam. Big Thought was one of 286 organizations on the receiving end of more than $2.7 billion in gifts from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. (The nonprofit will get about $1.5 million, Sanders says.) After getting divorced from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2019, Scott began giving away chunks of her fortune last year. Announcing the latest round of donations Tuesday morning, Scott writes that she—along with her husband, Seattle teacher Dan Jewett, and the team they’ve put together to find deserving organizations to support—is motivated in part by a sense of unease with the increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of elite billionaires.
“Me, Dan, a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisors—we are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” Scott writes in a blog post. “In this effort, we are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others.”
The groups receiving donations were in part chosen, Scott writes, for their work addressing equity in education. That fits Big Thought, which is known for bridging what Sanders, the nonprofit’s head, calls “opportunity gaps.” Big Thought creates programs that help young people whose potential is obstructed by race and class divisions in a segregated city where inequality runs rampant.
Big Thought has partnered with school districts on summer learning programs. It’s helped young people caught up in the juvenile criminal justice system with social and emotional support. It’s combined art and activism. It began offering virtual tutoring in an effort to help close the academic gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The last year was hard on an organization that specialized in in-person programming and work with schools. Big Thought had to lose team members. In many ways, it had to reinvent itself, Sanders says. The nonprofit has increasingly focused on addressing the root causes of systemic issues, rather than applying bandages to those issues.
“Greatness exists in every young person,” he says. “These young people, these Black or brown youths, might be coming from low-income communities. They’ve got a lot of ideas and energy. If we’re not seeing that be able to thrive to its fullest, then what are the conditions that are suppressing it, and keeping people from being their truest, most authentic selves?”
Sanders says the nonprofit has new initiatives in the works and big plans for the future. This donation from MacKenzie Scott will allow the organization to reinvest in its operations, he says.
Others have noted how Scott’s approach to giving has shaken up traditional philanthropy. For one thing, while she has a team of researchers conducting due diligence, she doesn’t ask organizations to apply. Her donations come as surprises to their recipients. She has no formal foundation, no tax-sheltered endowments. And she’s giving away a whole lot of money, with much more to come. Scott, who has a net worth of about $60 billion, has announced that she intends to give away “the majority of my wealth during my lifetime.”
And unlike with most large philanthropic gifts, there are almost no strings attached to Scott’s giving. There is accountability: organizations taking her money are expected to let her team know how things are going. But they can use the money however they see fit. No grant proposals or middlemen or labor-intensive reporting or site visits or naming rights—no requirement that the money go toward something specific, something splashy and visible that flatters the philanthropist.
Sanders is too polite to put it in these words, but Scott’s “trust-based philanthropy” is based on an understanding that billionaires don’t always know best.
“What comes with this gift is an explicit acknowledgement that the people closest to the work—even the people in the circumstances themselves—are experts,” he says.
In her blog post announcing these latest donations, Scott writes that “putting large donors at the center of stories on social progress is a distortion of their roles.”
She’s right. Social progress comes from the ground up—from the people working through groups like Big Thought, and from the young people who should be growing up in a more just, equitable city. If Dallas is going to be able to tell itself a story of genuine social progress, people like MacKenzie Scott shouldn’t be at the center.