Dear Mackenzie Scott, Thank You For Your Trust-Based Philanthropy

December 22, 2020 //

Dear Ms. Scott,

Thank you. Thank you for using your very visible philanthropic platform to respond to 2020 with fierce urgency and willingness to take direction from those most harmed by its horrors. Your giving has made headlines for obvious reasons: your public profile as a woman billionaire, the sheer scale of these gifts, the condensed timelines, and the apparent simplicity in how they were administered.

For me, the clear message to philanthropy is: “No more excuses.”

In the quiet way you went about it, I see trust-based philanthropy. Your giving—both who and what you invested in and how and when you did it—takes a decidedly different approach, one that: is informed by a trust-based, equity-centered philanthropy, centers the solutions of those most impacted, rejects traditional philanthropy’s rampant excuses for underfunding BIPOC leadership, and does this all without onerous process.

Giving this substantially, without institution or brand building, without reserve, without extensive controls, and without literally extracting the life force of the very people we intend to help, is extremely rare.

Here’s how I’m hoping your example shakes up philanthropic norms:

#1 – Trust-based philanthropy can be conducted at (enormous) scale without (enormous) burden on partners.

If my math is right, you’ve gifted 5.9 billion dollars to 500 organizations this year. From your two Medium posts (July and December), it appears you’ve done so without creating a tax-sheltered endowment, staffing a foundation, replicating burdensome processes, much fanfare or much ego. In hopes of addressing the very inequities that enable you to “draw the long demographic straw” of privilege, you attempt to address long-standing inequities exacerbated by Covid-19 and support systems change efforts of many varieties. From that values-based stance, you conducted a giving approach that seems to embody the values that drive trust-based philanthropy and at least half of the core principles:

  • Multi-year Unrestricted Funding ✔
  • (We) Do the Homework ✔
  • Simplify & Streamline Paperwork ✔

Thankfully, you were not the only funder in 2020 quickly using streamlined processes to move unrestricted funds. Traditional philanthropy is clearly not meeting the moment, and these adaptations—such as the actions taken post-Covid pledge and new funder collaborations are critical.

Whatever may have inspired you to give in this way, it certainly makes a strong case that it is purpose and intention—not scale—that shape how funds flow.

#2 – Data-driven philanthropy and trust-based philanthropy can go hand-in-hand.

I especially appreciate the notion that “because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft.” It seems here that you have combined two approaches that are sometimes cast as diametrically opposed. Data-driven philanthropy is sometimes boiled down to worshipping data science over human experience while trust-based philanthropy is sometimes boiled down to the quality of relationships, agnostic of data or strategy.

This both/and approach is used by many trust-based funders. Headwaters Foundation utilizes data from community partnerships to inform statewide solutions for health and equity. Headwaters is also a flagship trust-based funder, integrating a trust-based approach in their entire ecosystem from board to staff to nonprofit partnerships.

Ask any trust-based foundation and they will tell you: a humane, equitable, trust-based approach to philanthropy requires rigor. Likewise, a data-driven approach works best when it lives within trusting relationships between funders and grantee.

How can a funder or donor understand context or support the leadership of nonprofits and movements without proximity? And how can the collection of data itself be participatory rather than extractive? The key, as your team seems to demonstrate, is mechanisms for listening and learning.

#3 – The leadership and advocacy of historically marginalized communities is a baseline, not an addendum.

As chronic police brutality catalyzed racial justice movements again in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the nation and its philanthropic sector seemed to be playing catch up. Again. The email boxes of DEI consulting firms overflowed and racial justice solidarity statements were issued by hundreds of communications staff. Hastily adding racial justice addendums to already existing teams, programs, systems, and grantee partner cohorts is too often the case in the sector. Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity has benchmarked some progress in integrating racial equity, but also that philanthropy as a whole still has a long way to go towards deeper systems and culture change.

That issues of racial inequality are central to systemic problems and need to be central in systemic solutions is another legacy of 2020. But this was your baseline, your starting point. I was profoundly and personally moved to see the first $1.7B in grants centered on a conviction that “people who have experience with inequities are the ones best equipped to design solutions.” As I took in the leaders and organizations who received investments from that first round, it was clear that nonprofits with “key representation from historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups” did indeed make the cut.

Listening to and learning from those with direct experience unlocks so much of the “why” of trust-based philanthropy. It is why the phrase even exists – a gift and push from The Whitman Institute’s (TWI’s) partners. When TWI decided to spend out, we asked them to give us marching orders for our final ten years. What they said was this: go out and preach the gospel of trust-based philanthropy (a characterization and phrase literally taken from the field notes, surveys, and interviews of our partners for a grantee perception report).

Know Better, Do Better

If we are to arrive at a society that doesn’t amass limitless wealth for a few while mowing down millions, we must be willing to act boldly in all the ways available to us. For billionaires, this may be pledging to give away vast fortunes towards systems change solutions, equitable tax codes, and movements for justice led by the most impacted. For TWI, it is spending out and modeling a philanthropy that is guided first and foremost by the partnerships of learning and solidarity with those we serve.

Ms. Scott, you have changed the philanthropic landscape – for good – and shown that a non-traditional, more equitable way of giving is possible. If this year is any indication, your trust-based approach to giving is just getting started. As you look to the future, I hope you, and the sector, will consider these questions:

  • How does giving some or most of a fortune away ameliorate the conditions that inequitable wealth accumulation leaves in its wake? The preservation and unchecked growth of wealth is not just found in high profile billionaires, but also in philanthropy writ large.
  • Can giving at this scale this swiftly be both responsive and transparent? We have a lot to glean about the mechanics of a large scale, trust-based giving strategy like yours, will you share what you and your team have learned?

Here’s my takeaway: No. More. Excuses. This year has highlighted the monstrosities of our systems and the inequities it has created and sustained. For you, and for all of us, it is more of a risk to not act boldly in these times than it is to continue to witness, and maintain, and safeguard the status-quo.

So thank you, Mackenzie Scott, for bold action infused with humility, compassion, and trust. I hope it heralds philanthropy’s moves in the coming year.


Pia Infante