MacKenzie Bezos’s $17 billion pledge tops a growing list of women giving big

Shortly after her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became final, MacKenzie Bezos promised to give at least half of her assets away.

By divorcing the world’s richest person, the novelist and former accountant became the third-richest woman in the world and the wealthiest woman to sign onto the Giving Pledge, a commitment to give away the bulk of big fortunes.

“I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she declared. “I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

MacKenzie Bezos’s commitment to give away at least half of her wealth, about US$17 billion in today’s dollars, marks her as more generous than her ex-husband.

Jeff Bezos has not yet signed the pledge. And he never signaled much interest in giving away billions until the couple jointly made public their plans to donate $2 billion to help the homeless and fund a network of preschools in 2018.

MacKenzie Bezos is the most visible emblem to date of an important philanthropic trend. As a scholar of giving by and for women, I’ve studied how high-net-worth female donors are taking the reins of their family’s giving and, in many cases, charting their own course through philanthropy. Until recently, most have kept their profiles relatively low.

Giving while female

Some of today’s biggest female givers still tend to be overshadowed by their corporate-leader husbands. Although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has always promoted its work as the couple’s joint effort, it wasn’t until Melinda Gates published her 2019 book about her leadership role that her personal efforts to empower and educate women and girls worldwide gained prominence.

Similarly, Priscilla Chan, the physician married to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is the one running the couple’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They founded their limited liability corporation in 2015 with Facebook stock then worth $45 billion. Unlike with a foundation, an LLC allows them to make charitable gifts as well as investments, as well as to lobby and donate to politicians.

Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs, also funds a variety of nonprofit causes and invests in for-profit ventures through her own similarly structured entity, Emerson Collective.

Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, took hold of the couple’s philanthropy shortly after they married in 1969. She served as vice chair of the family foundation for 25 years, but that dwarfed the personal wealth she inherited when Ray died in 1984, ultimately giving more than $3 billion away through her estate.

But some of these big donors are self-made women, including the entertainment mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey. Sara Blakely, founder of the Spanx underwear and lingerie company, has also signed the Giving Pledge.