Growing up, if you asked me to provide a name associated with the term philanthropy, my first thought would have been Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was a Scottish-American industrialist who, in his later years, became known for his philanthropic giving. I still recall my first trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and seeing one of the 2,500 libraries that were built with his charitable funding. These institutions, for which he also provided operating support, would educate and expand the knowledge base of children and adults for generations. For me, Carnegie provided physical evidence of philanthropy that I could feel and experience. As an African-American teen, his libraries provided access to my cultural history that was difficult to access before the days of the internet search.
Today, philanthropists like Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates are recognized globally for providing high-level donations to charitable organizations. However, when I asked 10 American teens to associate names with the term philanthropy, none of these names were on their list. Not surprisingly, youth today responded with the names of people whose work they felt touched their lives — people like Michael Jordan and MacKenzie Scott. Prior to 2020, Jordan’s name would have been mainly recognized by students for his accomplishments on the basketball court and his stylish sneakers. For Scott, the press consistently identified her as the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos (note: Jeff Bezos is rarely, if ever, identified in articles as the ex-husband of MacKenzie Scott), so up until 2020, students would have associated her name mostly with Bezos and Amazon. In 2020, that all changed.
Inspired by the social unrest in America that followed the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and a global pandemic that held everyone inside, Americans were forced to face the ongoing impact of systemic racism and its devastating impact on the African-American community. In June 2020, Jordan announced his $100 million commitment to Black Lives Matter and social justice organizations. Utilizing a trust-based philanthropy approach, Scott announced over $4 billion in donations to charity. There was no application process, interview, or supporting documents. In addition to the gargantuan amount, Scott’s donations made headlines as being the largest donations to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Another unique aspect that tied Jordan’s and Scott’s philanthropic style was the fact that the majority of their respective donations went to charities directed by leaders of color. According to Dr. Danielle Moss Lee, CEO of Oliver Scholars, “It’s estimated that 80 percent of the nonprofit workforce in NYC is made up of people of color, and 80 percent of those workers are women of color. Yet, only 16 percent of nonprofit CEOs in New York are people of color.” The alignment of major donors committed to supporting diverse-led nonprofits serving people of color represents a major shift in the paradigm of giving. When asked why they named Jordan and Scott, the students had a united response — their giving impacts people who look like us. To Michael Jordan and McKenzie Scott, I salute you both and thank you for changing the face and focus of philanthropy.
Sophia Hanson serves as Senior Program Officer with The Alliance for Health Equity (AHE). The Alliance for Health Equity is a responsive philanthropic organization that focuses on changing the persistent inequities in health care, housing, education, and economic opportunities in the Greater Coatesville, Pennsylvania area.