Transformational Gifts – You Don’t Have to Be Mackenzie Scott to Make an Impact

At the end of 2020, Mackenzie Scott made news by giving more than $4 billion to 400 nonprofits across the country, three of which are here in Greenville County. In our March 2021 GPP meeting for funders, we used the stories about these gifts as a jumping off point to consider what makes a gift – other than its size – transformational for a nonprofit and its mission. Meghan Duffy, Executive Vice President of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) joined the meeting as well to provide national context to not just these gifts but to how philanthropy changed in 2020 and what to expect going forward.

Catriona Carlisle with Meals on Wheels and Tammie Hoy Hawkins with CommunityWorks Carolina, two of the Scott recipients, both said they thought their first calls about the gifts were a hoax. But when they learned they’d be receiving unrestricted grants in the high six to seven figure range, they were astonished.

The process revealed what can happen when a big grantmaker rethinks her role in creating stronger nonprofits – there was some vetting that took place and was outsourced by Ms. Scott to people with more lived experience than she has as one of the wealthiest women in the world. Ms. Scott’s team knew a lot about the organizations before they reached out (meaning they took on the burden of due diligence as grantmakers rather than putting the work on CommunityWorks and Meals on Wheels). They were also mindful of the nonprofits’ preferences in making the gifts: how they’d like to receive payment, how they’d like to publicize it and more.

Catriona and Tammie said they and their boards are taking time to think through how to use these funds to do the most for our community.

Meghan Duffy of GEO pointed out that this shares characteristics of trust-based philanthropy, something that is central to GEO’s mission as a community of funders committed to transforming philanthropic culture and practice by connecting members to the resources and relationships needed to support thriving nonprofits and communities. They envision “courageous grantmakers working in service of nonprofits and communities to create a just, connected and inclusive society where we can all thrive.”

Philanthropy Done Differently

Meghan pointed out that what made Mackenzie Scott’s gifts notable was not the amount, but the process: unrestricted, straightforward and with few hoops, using partners who are closer to communities to help, and leveraging her reputation and the very news about the process to suggest philanthropy can be done in a different way outside traditional approaches.

Meghan also shared what GEO has learned and observed during the pandemic. After a period of panic and analysis paralysis early in the pandemic, many funders realized that business as usual was no longer sufficient. Grantmakers needed to listen to nonprofits, lift their administrative burdens, provide unrestricted and additional funds and focus on communities of color disproportionately affected by the health and economic crisis.

These shifts in philanthropic practice, and culture, were a watershed moment. More funders recognized that many of our practices in philanthropy preserve the status quo and serve those of us working in or contributing funding, rather than nonprofits and people we have the privilege to support. And many noted that we need to reckon with the unpleasant truths about the roots of wealth and how they both feed philanthropy as well as inequity in our nation.

Those signals got louder when the summer arrived and calls for racial justice swept through the country. Foundations large and small began to wrestle with how to step up their work to support communities of color and to combat anti-Black racism.

Meghan said that in addition to the lessons we can learn from the way in which Ms. Scott made her grants, we saw through our COVID response that it’s possible to move a lot of money fast and without burdening nonprofits. We certainly saw this here in Greenville County, and Ms. Scott demonstrated it by pushing out billions of dollars quickly.

Changing the Rules to Advance Equity

Meghan also pointed out that philanthropy has the power to change the rules because most of the rules we have are ones we put on ourselves. There are very minimal regulations that we’re expected to live up to. She encouraged us to seek to understand the needs of nonprofits and understand what they are coping with. What has shifted for nonprofits and the communities they are serving? This doesn’t include just financial needs, but the burnout and trauma that many nonprofits are dealing with. We also need to make commitments that are durable and not just crisis driven.

GEO and others are seeing some concerning signs from the field about the extent to which pandemic-related shifts in grantmaking will last. Because of so much uncertainty, some funders are making things more restrictive, defaulting to program rather than general operating support, or pulling back from multiyear support. Meghan also expressed concern about the durability and depth of funders’ expressed commitments to equity. She recalled a conversation with a Black foundation CEO who said, “I feel like the veneer around those commitments to equity is so thin, we can already hear it cracking.” Meghan added, “There is a huge gap between people’s aspirations and how their practices are lining up. In fact, we’re already seeing things getting labeled as equity when they’re really not, because more people have picked up the language without grounding culture and practice in the reality of what’s required.”

Meghan offered a few things for funders to think about to leverage this moment:

  • How do we center nonprofits and community needs?
  • How do we make our processes lighter so that nonprofits can be free to do good work?
  • How can we understand differential impact – how racism, inequality and power work and how far removed we might be from the communities we want to impact?
  • What changes do we need to make internally to live out our values? This is really about culture change and change management, and we need to observe what forces are pushing us back to the old ways of doing things.

Even though many of our responses of 2020 were to crisis, we now can consider what we should continue and expand going forward, vs. retreating to old, ineffective and inequitable ways of operating.

After the session, Meghan shared this via email: “The main question I’d encourage participants to reflect on is this: do your practices align with your values? And once you identify the gap (it’s almost inevitable that a gap is there—both because so often we have built our practices without enough conscious intention to how they do/do not represent our values, and also because we are human and therefore fall short of our aspirations!), how can you start taking steps to close it?”

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations is an outstanding resource for funders interested in creating change. Meghan said she’d be pleased to connect with GPP members and encouraged participants to reach out if she or GEO can be a resource:

Special thanks to Tamela Spann and Hollingsworth Funds for inviting Meghan Duffy to join us for the meeting.

Additional resources:

Who is GEO?

  • GEO is a community of funders committed to transforming philanthropic culture and practice by connecting members to the resources and relationships needed to support thriving nonprofits and communities. We envision courageous grantmakers working in service of nonprofits and communities to create a just, connected and inclusive society where we can all thrive.
  • Many resources open to all (and some that are members-only). Also recommend the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project for useful and practical resources:

About philanthropy’s response in 2020:

On Mackenzie Scott’s giving:

On investing in communities of color and racial justice grantmaking:


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