Divorces and Philanthropy


San Francisco       No question that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates have made a ton of money from their various businesses.  Both go up and down on the list of richest people in the world, sometime first, but always in the conversation with a gazillion billions each.  But, as the song goes, “money can’t buy you love,” although these guys seem to have given it their best shot, their first marriages for reasons beyond our field of interest were torn asunder, leaving their ex-wives with huge piles of money, past any of our imaginations.

The former Bezos partner, Mackenzie Scott, has turned the philanthropic business model upside down.  Rather than amassing a huge staff and fiddling around for years coming up with a mission plan and establishing priorities, which has been the featherbedding model for most big foundations, she has metaphorically loaded up trucks full of billions and sent the money out the door in overdrive.  Having expressed a commitment to offload much of her billions, she has lived up to that promise, even as investments have almost replaced the cash as fast as she gave it away.  She has depended on a very small team of advisors in making the decisions.  The gifts have been huge and largely general support, which is what organizations most desperately need.  A lot of the money has gone to straight lace operations and big nonprofits, but that doesn’t take away from the interesting path she has forged with what is now her money.  More recently, for the first time she accepted applications for funds, guaranteeing the winning organizations would each receive a million bucks.  Everyone looked into that offer from Scott, but you had to have a million to get the million, so this wasn’t exactly cutting edge either, but there’s no question it made a difference.  I’m not saying everything Scott has done makes sense or is world changing, but she has directly confronted the way philanthropy works, and no one can say that she is letting the money burn a hole in her pocket.

Melinda French Gates was the other front-page divorcee of the superrich.  She had been the other name in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which for years has been the largest in the US and operated on a different model.  With 2000 staff people, this was a huge philanthropic bureaucracy with an elaborate process, extensive research and reporting, and specialties in health and other fields where they wanted to make a difference.  When French Gates split, she stayed with the foundation for the last several years, though the terms of the divorce meant that she could be forced out after two years.  She made news recently indicating that she was resigning from the board of the Gates Foundation and taking her more than $10 billion and putting it in her own thing where she would specialize in giving that benefited women and girls.

We shall see if she is the kind of gamechanger that Scott has been, though the odds are certainly against that from her record to date.  I know nothing of the ins and outs of all this, but I have to wonder if French Gates hasn’t been following what Scott has been doing, and said to herself, “hey, me too, I can do my own thing; just look at her go!”  Having to deal with a huge staff and bureaucracy every time you want to spend money out of what many families might still call “the joint account,” doesn’t feel like you are playing with your own money, but house money.  Being able to whip the money out your own way to what really moves you, even if not at the same lightning speed and double-dollar level that Scott has been doing, must have felt inviting.

Who knows?  It will be interesting to see if she gets this money moving like it matters.  Women and girls will be waiting and watching, as will the rest of us.