Empowering voices the world needs to hear – the story behind the big gifts

If MacKenzie Scott had been able to write the headline for stories about her recent philanthropic gifts, it would have been “286 Teams Empowering Voices the World Needs to Hear.”

But I don’t remember seeing any headlines like that – the stories I read were all about the gigantic amount of money that was being donated. Which seems to be one of the problems of journalism these days – a lot of it misses the point.

So when I found her blog post entitled “Seeding by ceding” while learning about one of the groups who got money, I was grateful to learn about the “why”. 

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

“Me, Dan, a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisors — we are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” she said in her post. “In this effort, we are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others. Though we still have a lot to learn about how to act on these beliefs without contradicting and subverting them, we can begin by acknowledging that people working to build power from within communities are the agents of change. Their service supports and empowers people who go on to support and empower others.”

I do wish governments would follow this philosophy and process in their funding of international development – to actively look for, find, and then support those whose work at the community level is making a difference in their communities and regions. 

I have been privileged to meet some of the people who are doing such work, and they are inspiring – but usually have to spend a lot of their time seeking funding to support their work. That means trying to fit their work into the categories that government or institutions will fund; trying to explain their circumstances to those who have likely never experienced anything similar.

One small example from my own experience. Back from election observation in Georgia more than a decade ago, I was reading about the experiences of one NGO that was working to empower women in that country. One of their budget items, for a small heater for their office, had been turned down because it seemed unnecessary to the funder. But, having just spent hours sitting in cold buildings heated only by a small wood-burning heater in a kitchen or a main meeting room while the other rooms were unheated, I knew exactly why they had included that line item.

MacKenzie Scott’s team found 286 groups that are doing community-changing work even if not always attracting headlines. “The result was $2,739,000,000 in gifts to 286 high-impact organizations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked.” And while that is a staggering amount of money, what to me is equally staggering that so little media or public attention has been focused on the work those 286 organizations are doing.

It is locally-led work in educating students from underserved communities, bridging ethnic and religious divides through interfaith support and collaboration, strengthening communities through innovative art and cultural institutions, and empowering women and girls among the 700 million people globally who still live in extreme poverty. (These are the people identified as being at the ‘bottom of the pyramid” by the late economist C.K. Prahalad back in 1995, while struggling with the question of why global poverty had not been alleviated despite the spending of so much money by so many groups and governments, for so long. BRAC calls them the ‘ultra-poor‘.)

And it involves supporting organizations in the US itself who support community engagement. “The 1.6 million non-profits in America employ 10% of our country’s workforce, and 63 million volunteers.” A key part of their work, she says, is to “promote and facilitate service, which in turn inspires more people to serve”. 

The gifts were relatively large and given without conditions, to be spent as the organization chooses,  “because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use”.

“These are people who have spent years successfully advancing humanitarian aims, often without knowing whether there will be any money in their bank accounts in two months,” she said. “What do we think they might do with more cash on hand than they expected? Buy needed supplies. Find new creative ways to help. Hire a few extra team members they know they can pay for the next five years. Buy chairs for them. Stop having to work every weekend. Get some sleep.”

I have been working my way through the list of the 286 organizations (there are links to each one in the listing in her post) and I am inspired by the work they are doing to create change in their communities. Many of them I had not previously heard about, so I am impressed with the quality of research done by her team.

And I encourage you, too, to look at some of them, and if you are inclined to support such work, consider giving them encouragement, time, and, if you can, money. Because they can use all three. And bless you, MacKenzie Scott, for doing what a lot of us would wish to do if we were able.