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Illustration by Agata Nowicka for TIME; Presley Ann—Getty Images
May 25, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

Imagine for a moment being obscenely, outrageously rich. I know you’ve done it before. You probably have a list of priorities—college for the kids, new car, pay off debts. Forget that list. That list is puny. You’re so rich that you can do everything on it three times over. You could buy a small Massachusetts town and deliver the title deed to Harvard along with your kid’s application. You could get Jay Leno to autograph the mud flap of his 1994 McLaren F1 before selling it to you. You could eliminate the debt of Kentucky. This is the kind of rich where nothing except a second home on an exoplanet is out of your reach.

That is the position in which MacKenzie Scott found herself in July 2019, when her divorce from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was finalized and she became the owner of 4% of Amazon’s stock. She was a single woman in her 50th year with about $38 billion to blow. Since then Amazon’s share price has grown like the piles of cardboard boxes it leaves on quarantined homes’ doorsteps, so estimates of her wealth are even higher, something like $57 billion. And that’s after giving $5.9 billion away.

People have given away that much before. But not usually so fast. Or without starting a foundation first. Or without any of the recipients asking for it or even knowing in advance. Or with so few strings attached; the organizations can use the money in any way they see fit. One of the beneficiaries of her largesse, Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), got an amount, $30 million, that was 3,000% the size of any other gift in its history. A community college in Nebraska got $15 million, equal to its entire endowment. The Charlotte, N.C., YMCA got $18 million, enough to make its CEO burst into tears. According to Candid, an organization that tracks spending in the charitable sector, Scott was responsible for 20% of all the COVID-19-related philanthropic funds given away globally last year, and almost 75% of those given by individuals. More than half of the money given to BIPOC communities by rich people last year came from her.

Scott was rich before her divorce, of course. Increasingly so, during her 25-year marriage to Bezos. But perhaps because the wealth was not strictly hers to dispose of, she was not noted for her extravagant giving. In fact, she was not noted for her extravagant anything. She drove a Honda minivan to drop her kids at school—and Bezos at the office. She wore a $700 jersey dress to the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar party. (If you want to make like MacKenzie, it’s now 80% off.) Some of the dinners she hosted at her home were potluck.

So it’s probably not surprising that even before the stock transfer made her one of the richest women in the world, just a month after her divorce was settled, and two years ago this month, Scott signed the Giving Pledge, a public promise to give away the bulk of her wealth. “We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand,” she wrote in her pledge. “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share.” Warren Buffett’s a signatory to the pledge, as are Bill and Melinda Gates; Sara Blakely, who invented Spanx; and Michael Bloomberg, among more than 200 others. (Bezos is not.) But in her first year of giving her money away, Scott has been behaving quite differently from her fellow philanthropists. And in doing so, she may quietly be changing the way the trillion-dollar-a-year philanthropy business operates.

“I don’t even remember the subject line,” says Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., of an email she received in December. “It simply said, you know, ‘President Barrett, I represent a philanthropist who is interested in giving a gift to Northeast Community College. Can we set up a time when we could talk in the next few days?’” Without thinking about it too much, she sent back her phone number. Then she had a pang of doubt. What weird email address did she just send her number to?

She called her head of IT and VP of development to ask if she’d done the wrong thing. Their suggestions calmed her; it probably was either spam or, her development officer said, “some farmer that wants to give us five grand.” The last group to give the school a significant gift was the Acklie family—Northeast alumnus Duane Acklie made it big in the trucking business—whose foundation donated $5 million and got a farm-equipment warehouse named after them.

A few days after the email, Barrett got on the phone with a woman whose name she is not allowed to reveal, who told her that a philanthropist known as MacKenzie Scott was giving the school $15 million to do with as she wished. Scott wanted nothing named after her in return, not even a tractor. Barrett was told Scott believed in her and her ability to make the right choice for the money. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude but this is crazy. Help me to confirm the legitimacy of this,’” says Barrett. “And so she sent me to the Medium post.”

Scott announced her giving via two articles on Medium, one after her $1.7 billion donating spree in July 2020 and another after she handed out $4.2 billion in December of the same year. She has made no further statements. She is not, by all reports, an extrovert. She does very few interviews. (She did not respond to repeated requests through several intermediaries for an interview for this story.) The people who are close to her know that she prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

The groups that received money from her were given instructions as to what they could and could not reveal; some would not even disclose the gender of the person from whom they got the news. This makes sense. Rich people with children are always vigilant about privacy. (Amazon’s SEC filings reveal that it spent $1.6 million on security for Bezos and his family in 2019.) Scott doesn’t need any more attention. And as she told Vogue in 2013, she doesn’t like glad-handing. “Cocktail parties for me can be nerve-racking. The brevity of conversations, the number of them—it’s not my sweet spot.” You can see her discomfort in a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose for one of her novels, as a red rash creeps around her neck even before Rose’s questions move away from her book and toward her marriage.

Her inaccessibility has come with a cost. Scams have been perpetrated in her name. Websites and a Facebook page for a fake MacKenzie Scott Foundation were set up. A mother in Wollongong, Australia, who started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of her autistic son’s education, was contacted by someone who said they were MacKenzie Scott and wanted to help. The woman, Danielle Churchill, told the New York Times that she borrowed more than $10,000 from her family to pay what were called associated fees, only to find that she had been defrauded. Churchill wrote in a GoFundMe update that she did not blame Scott, but noted that “maybe a different approach at her giving will help this from happening again.” (Churchill’s campaign has now raised the $50,000 it initially sought.)

Other experts in philanthropy have questioned the wisdom and utility of operating at the scale of the largest foundations but being as unreachable, and thus unaccountable, as a private individual. Inside Philanthropy called her methods “simultaneously exciting and troubling to behold.” If all philanthropists worked the way she did—acting alone without a foundation or an obvious way of being contacted—grantmaking might be more efficient, but it would be less transparent, and possibly less diverse in its interests and approaches. (There might also be fewer jobs in the philanthropy business.)

The public statements Scott has made about her giving all came via the Medium posts in which she explained how she tried to make her unusual strategy rigorous. The causes she funded could broadly be described as progressive: organizations that support women’s and LGBTQ rights; address climate change; alleviate poverty, disability and hunger; and seek racial equity. What she outlined could be described as a hunter, rather than a gatherer, approach to giving: instead of hanging out a shingle and gathering the applications, she amassed a hunting party with the Bridgespan Group, an elite nonprofit consultancy spun off from the management consultancy Bain & Co., to sniff out organizations with strong leadership and results. Other foundations, including Gates and Rockefeller, have also worked with the group, but not like Scott did—using it more or less as a one-stop shop for all her philanthropy needs. Over the months, they whittled the list down from 6,490 to exactly 500, with at least one from each state, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The Medium posts are well-written and literary—with allusions to the glasswing butterfly and Emily Dickinson—but they beg the question: Why not just let your money do the talking, especially if you’re averse to the spotlight? “There was probably some sense that she wanted to express some of the emotional and analytical frames that she was using to guide this process,” says Candid’s executive vice president, Jacob Harold. But it was also partly to amplify the effect of the gift. “My own reflection after recent events revealed a dividend of privilege I’d been overlooking,” Scott writes. “The attention I can call to organizations and leaders driving change.”

Scott lists every organization, with a link, and suggests others join her in sending some resources the way of these groups now that she has done the heavy lifting of figuring out if they’re doing any good. The grant recipients TIME contacted said they had not seen an increase in giving. But they had received other unexpected dividends. Most of the organizations were midsize, and some of them began to form loose coalitions. The president of BMCC, Anthony Munroe, emailed every other college on that list to see if they wanted to join forces and share resources and ideas. About a dozen did, including Barrett’s school in Nebraska. They’ve formed smaller committees to discuss how to leverage their combined energy on marketing and communications, development and fundraising, strategic planning, and helping their students succeed.

Eboo Patel’s organization, Interfaith Youth Core, which tries to bring together students of different faiths to work toward unity and eliminate mistrust, got $6 million. But Patel also got something less tangible. Scott put all the organizations she was supporting into certain categories to demonstrate where her priorities were. “The category that we were under was empathy and bridge building,” says Patel. “MacKenzie Scott named a new category. There are very few foundations that have a bridge-building giving area, and by naming that space, then by making gifts to a dozen or so organizations, MacKenzie Scott accelerated the growth of a field, dramatically.” It’s not as if others weren’t attuned to the problem of divisiveness—the Einhorn Collaborative and other foundations have gathered together to form the New Pluralists to support nonprofits that help build empathy between people with opposing views of an issue, and in 2020, the group established a $100 million fund with this bridge-building aim—but Scott’s nomenclature still moved the needle. “She categorized these organizations as a necessary field to invest in,” says Jenn Hoos Rothberg, executive director of the Einhorn Collaborative. “For those of us who have been in this space for so long, it was a cause for celebration.”

It sounds a lot easier to give money away effectively than it actually is. Money is like fertilizer; if you put it in the wrong places, or lay it on too thick, you can destroy ecosystems and poison people. Most wealthy benefactors create their own foundations, limited liability companies or donor-advised funds (which invest the money until the donor decides where to give it away), and have considerable infrastructure and staff to handle their giving. Some pick a few favorite existing charities that they understand and work with.

Keeping the money can also be difficult. John D. Rockefeller’s adviser Frederick T. Gates warned the tycoon that his fortune was like an avalanche: “You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you, and your children, and your children’s children!” Because money begets money, billionaires such as Bezos—and even some who are trying a little harder to give it away—struggle to make a dent in their wealth. Scott, who has promised to keep giving “until the safe is empty,” was richer at the end of the year than before she handed out her $6 billion.

It’s also true that Scott wrote about what she was doing because Scott is a writer. At Hotchkiss, the fancy private boarding school Scott attended when she was still MacKenzie Tuttle (Scott is her middle name, after her grandfather), she was known as one of the strongest writers, says Katie Gates, who was in the same study group in her dormitory, Buehler. “She was an excellent editor, especially of certain papers, like those for Robert Hawkins—the Hawk. In his class, if you were lucky, you’d get a C.”

Her professor at Princeton, Toni Morrison, called her “really one of the best” creative-writing students she’d ever had and wrote a blurb for her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, which won a 2006 American Book Award. Her second novel, Traps, was published in 2013. Writing is how Scott prefers to communicate. Writing was how Scott intended to spend her life. The whole billionaire thing was just an accident.

Scott met Bezos at the New York City hedge fund D.E. Shaw in 1992. Shaw had decided he needed to hire smart assistants who weren’t necessarily math majors, and Scott, who had recently graduated from Princeton, sent in her résumé. Scott may be quiet, but she is not timid. The woman who was once the Hotchkiss men’s lacrosse team equipment manager was not going to be intimidated by a bunch of finance people. She ended up with an office next to the guy with the loudest laugh in the joint. She has said that she fell in love with the guffaw and started to pursue its owner, a fellow Princeton grad. After dating for three months they got engaged. Three months later they were married. Scott was 23.

Before long they were driving across the country in Bezos’ dad’s car to pursue Bezos’ dream of setting up an online book business. This meant leaving behind the safe salaried job at the hedge fund, but Scott, the last woman Bezos can know for sure didn’t marry him for his money, was reportedly unruffled; she had experienced a change of fortune before. While she was at Hotchkiss, her father Jason Tuttle, who had an investment-planning business in San Francisco, ran afoul of the SEC. The Tuttles declared bankruptcy, moved to Palm Beach, Fla., and Jason was barred from the financial advisory field.

During the upheaval, Scott got into Princeton, with the help of financial aid. Some of her costs were paid by a group of alumni from the class of 1926 who each year supported one student for their four-year education. In return, she turned up at their reunions to help out. (They loved her.) She also had to work, she told Charlie Rose, 30 hours a week in low-wage jobs—waitressing, dishwashing, retail—to pay her way, and she worried that she could not take full advantage of what her Ivy League education offered. These experiences may be reflected in the more than 35 schools that received grants from her. Munroe of BMCC says his student body, “the majority of whom are female of color, and many of them head of household,” were struggling to stay in school in 2020, because the stay-at-home measures had meant they had lost jobs or had hours cut back and they needed to find work. A fifth of his students reported being homeless at some point during the pandemic.

“The usual suspects for really big grants are elite cultural institutions, elite health care institutions—basically hospitals—and elite universities,” says Candid’s Harold. “The fact that those organizations were not on her list was definitely noticeable.” It’s possible Scott also gave to Princeton—the Bezoses gave their alma mater $15 million in 2011—but a spokesperson for the university declined to comment on whether Scott had donated any other funds.

MacKenzie Scott and Jeff Bezos in Sun Valley, Idaho for the Allen & Co. annual conference on July 10, 2013.
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

The Tuttle family’s financial woes seem to be behind them. One of her brothers, Chandler, is CEO of Freethink, an innovation-focused media platform funded by the Skoll Foundation. Her other brother, Jason Jr., is an indie video-game developer, and his wife is director of operations at one of L.A.’s best restaurants. Her parents are well ensconced in Palm Beach, Fla., society, where Scott’s mother Holiday (she was born on Dec. 25) is a chairperson of the charitable-works committee of a local Catholic church guild. Elizabeth Ailes, widow of onetime Fox News honcho Roger Ailes, is also on the committee, which may explain why the Tuttles’ 55th wedding-anniversary party in 2018 was like a who’s who of conservative big shots: Liz Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Anna Murdoch Mann (Rupert Murdoch’s second wife) mingled with the likes of the artist Edwina Sandys (a.k.a. Winston Churchill’s granddaughter) and Andres Fanjul, the son of a sugar baron. “It was a splendid occasion,” says Sandys. “They’re a very warm family.”

Bezos was there with Scott, although within eight months, the National Enquirer would publish intimate texts between Bezos and Lauren Sánchez, a bubbly TV personality-cum-helicopter pilot-cum-aerial-filming business owner, and four months after that, in April 2019, the Bezoses would announce that they had reached a divorce settlement. Scott did no damage to her reputation for extravagant modesty when she published, in her first-ever tweet, that she was “Grateful to have finished the process of dissolving my marriage with Jeff.” She has since tweeted—to her 148,000 followers—two times.

There are those who say, especially in the comments sections under stories about Scott, that she should give away the money because she did not earn it. This is true and not true. There is some luck in the accumulation of any fortune. Before she left Amazon to focus on raising their four kids, including a daughter adopted from China, Scott was doing the books, some deals and whatever was necessary to keep the company going and the staff happy at the fledgling retailer. Many of her colleagues from that time no longer have to work for a living. (“I have nothing but the kindest memories and thoughts about and sentiments towards MacKenzie,” says Jonathan Kochmer, another employee who was made rich by his early association with Amazon.)

If it is true that Scott’s fortune arrived on her doorstep by chance, it is also true that it is leaving her doorstep with a lot of purpose. She recently remarried. What eligible bachelor did she score? Dan Jewett, who taught her children science at Lakeside School. He’s tall, handsome, intelligent, about five years younger than she is, and was previously married to an interior designer with whom he shared several dogs. Former students recall him as a nerd and disciplinarian, but one with an impressive repertoire of bad chemistry jokes and a heart. “One time, the administrator came to the classroom to take attendance,” that is, the names of those who had been late or absent, says Griffin Cock Foster, who was taught by Jewett in 2008. “He jumped out the window because turning in attendance basically means, like, ratting on kids.” Jewett shares Scott’s affection for books, and often recommended his students read a YA collection of essays about the history of chemistry, Napoleon’s Buttons.

Like Scott’s first husband, Jewett is bald and has a booming voice. Unlike Bezos, however, he’s more into giving money away than making it. He signed the Giving Pledge in March, noting that he had been schooled in generosity by others, “people who supported me through challenging times, showed me grace when I was at my worst, befriended me despite our differences, and offered me a home when I had none.” While Jewett’s background is not well-known, he grew up in Maine and got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern University, a Christian college noted for its commitment to social good (Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative, is an alum). “He’s an incredibly gentle and generous person in all realms,” says someone from the Lakeside School community who doesn’t wish to be named, because the school has discouraged speaking to the press, but who wished to make clear he was no gold digger. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he’s excited to be in the position to give away money.”

Scott’s very first book, written when she was 6, was called The Book Worm. It had several chapters, and from the sound of things was more autobiography than treatise on annelids. We will never know, however, because it was destroyed in a flood. Her other books, one featuring an engineer father, whose life—and work—is shaken up by an unexpected tremor, the second featuring a woman who’s famous, also sound like they have drawn from her life experience. Given her fame, aversion to publicity and the enormous amount of money she wants to give away, Scott’s future literary output may be slim. But she is now getting to write the narrative of the rest of her life, rather than just getting crushed by the avalanche.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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