What Business Leaders Can Learn From Philanthropist Mackenzie Scott

By Vanessa Achtar

MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, along with a few others, are changing the game with her trust-based approach to philanthropy. She pledged to give away her fortune quickly, donating to underserved organizations and causes, and trusting those on the ground to make decisions about how the funds are best used. While it may be too early to fully appreciate the impact of their giving, they are there already evidence that her unique method will have a dramatic impact on communities across the country. The connection between philanthropy and business may not seem obvious, but there are some important lessons business leaders can learn from Scott’s approach.

Expand the definition of leadership

In addition to her own giving, Scott has a big focus on helping people expand their definition of philanthropy. She’s uncomfortable with the connotation that it’s all about the world’s wealthiest donating their money to specific, targeted causes. As she points outThe actual definition of philanthropy is much broader – it includes small donations, personal support, humanitarian speeches and demonstrations in support of important movements.

The same goes for leadership – it’s not just for executives. From our research, we know that the key to organizations’ ability to move quickly and respond to today’s rapidly changing environment is to create more opportunities for more leadership from more people. That means more employees at all levels who are genuinely excited about the future empowered to act when they see an opportunity – whether it’s improving a process that streamlines work for employees, finding a creative solution for a client, or identifying an unmet need in the marketplace.

Empower those closest to the work to drive solutions

Most funders, especially large foundations, require extensive data collection and reporting to demonstrate the impact of their investment. While this data helps tell the story of what their donations have made possible, it also diverts attention from the work on the ground and can limit the flexibility and creativity of how nonprofit organizations provide services to their communities. Scott takes a very different approach – relying on her diverse team to identify experts and practitioners, then stepping out of the way so they can make decisions about how to most effectively use the funds. Not having control over how the money is used may seem risky. But Scott recognizes an important point — local people have the greatest understanding of what their community needs.

The same applies in business life. Those closest to the job—the factory workers, the call center reps, the middle managers who deal with workforce dynamics day-to-day—have the deepest understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and what solutions could have the biggest impact. This does not mean that business leaders have no role to play and should allow everyone to make decisions without oversight. However, when leaders set clear and compelling direction for the future and provide the necessary guard rails, it is imperative to unleash their greatest asset – their people.

Time and time again, we see this approach yield incredible results. For example, one healthcare system struggled with very poor employee engagement, resulting in high turnover rates and negative press coverage (which damaged its reputation in the community). The leadership team came together to articulate what would be possible – for staff and patients – if they could make meaningful changes to the way they work. They tapped into a diverse group of informal influencers across the hospital, including nurses, facility staff, HR professionals, psychologists, and IT staff. In six months, this group devised a whole new approach to employee recognition, revamped knowledge-sharing processes, and found multiple ways to break down silos—resulting in a 12-point increase in the Best Place to Work score.

Accept the notion that “small” wins add up

Using Scott’s broader definition of philanthropy, she emphasizes the importance of all the “small” actions. Almost a third of the $471 billion donated in 2020 came from donations of $5,000 or less. And that doesn’t take into account all the types of giving that aren’t covered, such as giving. Like giving a homeless man a sandwich or shoveling your elderly neighbor’s driveway. But, as Scott points out, over time, these smaller acts of kindness have a cumulative effect — leading to bigger results.

Too often in organizations we wait to celebrate until we have achieved the big wins – the realization of the long-term KPI, the launch of new products, the quarterly shareholder report. These results are all important. But they alone are not enough to gain momentum. People need to see progress along the way and understand how their efforts contribute to the desired outcome. Imagine if a parent waited for their child to win a cross-country race and never celebrated when they crawled for the first time, took their first steps (and then fell), or signed on to their first track team ? And yet, in business, we tend to think of hitting milestones — or pivoting after important lessons learned — as just part of the job. Highlighting daily contributions and achievements helps skeptics see progress is possible and motivates those who take the initiative to keep going when inevitable obstacles arise.

Just as MacKenzie Scott is challenging the status quo in philanthropy, it’s about time more business leaders did the same. The complexity, uncertainty and speed of today’s world require a new way of working that allows for greater agility and adaptability. By expanding the definition of leadership to enable those closest to work to drive solutions and capitalize on the small gains, organizations will begin to see dramatic shifts in what’s possible.

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