MacKenzie Scott upended philanthropy as we know it. Melinda French Gates is catching on

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File

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In her cameo in the 1996 comedy First Wives Club, Ivana Trump offers a witty post-divorce kernel of wisdom: “Don’t get mad, get everything.” The 2024 version of that sentiment, at least among a certain class of billionaire women, might tack on an addendum: Get everything, and give it all away as fast as humanly possible.

That’s the way MacKenzie Scott, one of America’s single largest philanthropists, has chosen to disburse the spoils of her divorce from Jeff Bezos in 2019. And it’s a style that Melinda French Gates appears to be emulating, at least partly, in her newly solo philanthropic venture.

On Tuesday, French Gates revealed in a New York Times essay that her first project after leaving the foundation she co-founded with her ex, Bill Gates, would focus on advancing women’s rights around the world.

French Gates said she is “experimenting with novel tactics” such as doling out $20 million grants to 12 smart people and letting them do with it what they see fit. “I’m eager to see the landscape of funding opportunities through their eyes.”

That kind of unrestricted giving is uncommon in the traditionally bureaucratic realm of philanthropy. But it’s not unheard of, and that’s largely thanks to the way women generally, and Scott in particular, have taken a radical, trust-based approach to giving.

“I think it’s been the bane of a lot of nonprofits’ existence is that, if it’s government grants, they have to comply with a lot of red tape to demonstrate that they’re having an impact,” Amir Pasic, the dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, tells me. “And I think a lot of philanthropies, especially the highly professional foundations kind of emulate that way of looking at things — they want you to know how to measure the impact that you’re having … And nobody asks the nonprofits if these are even the appropriate impact measures.”

That’s starting to change as more women control the direction of the billions getting disbursed.

“Women tend to be more social in the way that they approach giving, and they’re more collaborative,” Pasic says, citing research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.

Scott’s style of giving — generous, unrestricted and consistently happening with zero fanfare around it — has been a notable departure from the more methodical, top-down approach of large charitable foundations, including the one French Gates co-founded.

Now independent of that organization, French Gates is free to take bets on organizations and communities regardless of their size or ability to demonstrate their impact.

Scott and French Gates’ ex husbands, meanwhile, aren’t getting as many kudos for their charitable work as they might like.

Bezos has a history of hyping his big plans — just one of many sharp contrasts to Scott’s charitable work — and told CNN in 2022 that he planned to give away the majority of his wealth (currently estimated at more than $200 billion).

But Bezos has not signed the Giving Pledge, a popular way for the ultra-rich to declare their charitable intentions, and many of his big-ticket promises have come under scrutiny. Most recently, Bezos made a $100 million pledge to help rebuild Maui after last year’s wildfires. But in January, Bloomberg reported that local officials and nonprofits on the island hadn’t received any money from Bezos.

Gates, with a net worth of $154 billion, has also faced criticism for the Gates Foundation’s methods.

“Gates’s vast wealth could help the world in far-reaching ways, for example if it were redistributed as cash gifts to the poor,” the journalist Tim Schwab recently wrote in The Nation. “That can’t happen through the Gates Foundation’s father-knows-best, look-at-me brand of bureaucratic philanthropy.”

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