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  • Dan Connors

Jeff Bezos' ex-wife Mackenzie Scott and her revolution in giving.

Jeff Bezos and ex-wife MacKenzie Scott

Are the rich getting richer? I have nothing in particular against the rich, but the problem of increasing income inequality has gotten more prevalent during my 60 years on this planet, and it sees no signs of slowing down. The fortunes of the poor middle class seem to have stagnated while those of the billionaire class have skyrocketed. This is because wealth today comes from investing and luck, and not from labor and hard work.

The problem of income inequality can be visualized as a tall structure that reaches high into the sky. If the base of that structure isn't big and strong enough, the whole thing falls down, and societies in the past have collapsed when the rich got too out of touch with the reality down below. This could happen again.

One of my main focuses in the past decade has been on non-profits. Most of these small organizations operate on volunteer energy and fundraisers, and they can make a huge difference in their communities. Thanks to the inverted pyramid of income we see today, the number of people who contribute to charities has declined. (A big factor in this is the loss of the itemized tax deduction that many taxpayers saw prior to the 2017 Trump tax cut bill.) Only the very wealthy can see a tax benefit from their charitable efforts, and non-profits are becoming more and more dependent on the richest 1% for their survival.

Many of these donations to charity are life-saving, but more and more they are coming with strings attached. Because so many in the billionaire class think that they know better than the rest of us, they prefer to give to charities that they approve of, which includes non-profits that will name buildings after them and invite them to expensive, lavish special events. This is a real problem that non-profits face, and it makes me wonder if we wouldn't be better off if the government taxed all these billionaires and took that money to distribute it more carefully where it would do the most good. (The United Way performs this same function, but they are having the same problem with restricted donations).

Luckily, all billionaires are not the same. People like Bill Gates and Dolly Parton are an inspiration to us all. And one little-known woman, MacKenzie Scott, is making a real difference in the non-profit world.

Scott is the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. She was with him at the beginning of Amazon, and thanks to their divorce in 2019 is now one of the richest people on the planet. Scott could have taken that money and retired to a life of leisure and selfishness. But she chose another path.

Since 2019 she has personally donated over $14 Billion dollars to over 1600 non-profits all over the world. Each donation was a transformative amount and here's the best part- no strings attached! She trusted the staff of each non-profit to use the money wisely and for the best possible result. She did this quietly without any fanfare and few people today even know who she is.

Mind you, all nonprofits are not the same. Some are downright fraudulent, so I'm sure she and her people did their homework to find the most deserving. Scott specifically chose organizations that were led by people with "lived experience", who had actually experienced the problems that their non-profits were now trying to fix. Her goal was to empower the people on the front lines of challenges that have the best experience and knowledge of how to put the money to good use. This seems like common sense, but in a world dominated by ego and misinformation, it is transformational.

As a board member for one of the non-profits that she donated to (National Alliance on Mental Illness aka NAMI), I can vouch for the power of Ms. Scott's donations. NAMI received $30 million from her, their largest donation ever, and is able to distribute it nationwide to mental health support programs all over the country. If more billionaires would donate to groups like NAMI instead of stashing money offshore, who knows what kind of miracles could happen?

Money has a corrupting influence as psychological studies have proven. It makes those with it feel superior to those without it. When wealthy people do part with any money, they do it with ulterior motives- to get status, put their name on something, or promote their own pet interests. To give to the most deserving without any strings attached is the best expression of love that we can give. Figuring out who is the "most deserving" and best vector to do the most good is the tricky part. But Ms. Scott and the others who have signed the giving pledge are at least attempting to get us there.

I have no solutions to the real problem of income inequality. It is more than just being jealous of someone else's house, car, or lifestyle. It is a society that allocates money inefficiently- causing excess at the top and misery at the bottom. There will always be some inequality, but a world in which politicians, companies, and even non-profits are owned and controlled by a small cadre of billionaires is not sustainable.

I'll leave the last word to MacKenzie Scott, who wrote:

"Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose. Many reported that this trust significantly increased the impact of the gift. There is nothing new about amplifying gifts by yielding control. People have been doing it in living rooms and classrooms and workplaces for thousands of years. It empowers receivers by making them feel valued and by unlocking their best solutions. Generosity is generative. Sharing makes more.

A favorite verse by Rumi captures this well:

“A candle as it diminishes explains,

Gathering more and more is not the way.

Burn, become light and heat and help. Melt.”

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