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Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
June 11th 2019


With the recent announcement by Mackenzie Bezos, former wife of Jeff Bezos, that she has signed the Giving Pledge committing to giving away half of her $37 billion fortune, it’s timely to talk more about philanthrocapitalism and look at how the road to good can take a misguided turn and lead to…well, somewhere many millions or billions could go to naught. Will Bezos be able to disperse the almost $18+ billion she’s pledged (from what I’ve read, it’s easier said than done) while avoiding some of the spectacular oopsies some of her fellow billionaires have made?

As Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan, says…

“Of course, just getting rid of the money isn’t the goal here; making the world a better place is the goal. And from her experience in giving so far - including last year’s $2 billion commitment with Jeff for early childhood education and homelessness - MacKenzie surely knows that there are a lot of banana peels that mega-givers can slip on as they move into ambitious, high-profile philanthropy.”

Inside Philanthropy, Seven Mistakes That New Billionaire Philanthropists Make — and How MacKenzie Bezos Can Avoid Them, David Callahan, May 29 2019

Even the Gateses, who have done immense good in the world, had a strikingly large blow-up with their 20-year and billions of dollars Common Core States Standards initiative. In 2016,

“Sue Desmond-Hellmann, foundation chief executive officer, wrote this in a newly released annual letter:

‘Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.’

That may be news only to the Gates Foundation. As this new biting editorial in the Los Angeles Times - with the headline,

Source:  LA Times

Source: LA Times

‘Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda’

- says: It was a remarkable admission for a foundation that had often acted as though it did have all the answers. Today, the Gates Foundation is clearly rethinking its bust-the-walls-down strategy on education - as it should. And so should the politicians and policymakers, from the federal level to the local, who have given the educational wishes of Bill and Melinda Gates and other well-meaning philanthropists and foundations too much sway in recent years over how schools are run.”

Washington Post, Gates Foundation Chief Admits Common Core Mistakes, Valerie Srauss, June 02 2016

Desmond-Hellman was also quoted in the aforementioned L.A. Times piece:

“We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system wide change…It is really tough to create more great public schools.”

Los Angeles Times, Gates Foundation Failures Show Philanthropists Shouldn’t Be Setting America's Public School Agenda, The Times Editorial Board, June 01 2016

One of the most critical points in the Gates Foundation admission, I believe, is that they failed to engage and listen to key stakeholders with this well-intentioned but failed project.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg created a similar disaster with an ill-thought-out $100 million donation, also for education reform.

“Mark Zuckerberg once made a $100 million investment in a major US city to help fix its schools - now the mayor says the effort 'parachuted' in and failed. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million toward creating an education foundation in Newark, New Jersey. The goal was to help the city's struggling school system. In an interview with Business Insider, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said that the foundation did not use the money wisely….Zuckerberg wasn't personally involved with the foundation's efforts, and according to Baraka, the group did not spend the Facebook founder's donation wisely. He wishes the foundation would have engaged more with local community members to find solutions specific to Newark.” 

Business Insider, Mark Zuckerberg Once Made a $100 Million Investment, Leanna Garfield, May 13 2018

But both the Gateses and Zuckerberg/Chan appear to have learned from these failed attempts to do good. In an interview with CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current  just last week, Melinda Gates talked about her work with women in countries like India, and how she had made assumptions about what they needed to bring hope into their lives. It was in listening to these women, and to one woman in particular - who told her she had no hope for her children, and that although she knew contraception was available, she had no means to access it. She also told her (Gates) her in-laws wanted her to have many more children - and that’s when Gates had her ‘aha’ moment - global access to contraceptives was critical to changing the lives of these women.

Gates has recently published a book   The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World   .

In the Inside Philanthropy article, Callahan says Zuckerberg and Chan now also embrace “a very different approach to giving that involves much more active listening and engagement with the communities they’re trying to help.” (Inside Philanthropy, Seven Mistakes That New Billionaire Philanthropists Make — and How MacKenzie Bezos Can Avoid Them, David Callahan, May 29 2019)


Listening to key stakeholders is one piece of advice he also has for Bezos, along with several others, in his Inside Philanthropy article Seven Mistakes That New Billionaire Philanthropists Make - and How MacKenzie Bezos Can Avoid Them. Some of the actions he advises Bezos and other billionaire philanthrocapitalists to avoid include:

“Going it Alone: Callahan suggests tapping into ongoing collaborations among other funds including intermediaries who are donating on a large scale to not for profits with high impact….Unfortunately, too many new philanthropists (especially men) don’t connect to these outfits, and instead go it alone - reinventing the wheel and making avoidable mistakes.

Not Listening on a Deep Level: If Mark Zuckerberg is not too busy trying to rein in the Frankenstein he created with Facebook, MacKenzie should talk to him about his experience in Newark -where, to put it mildly, things didn’t work out as planned. Zuck kicked in $100 million for a very disruptive education reform scheme that didn’t have buy-in from key local stakeholders. While the effort wasn’t the total failure that critics have charged, as we’ve reported, it’s become a case study in top-down philanthropy gone sideways.

Relying Too Much on Elite Experts: Callahan says one of the reasons the new billionaire philanthropists aren’t listening on a deep enough level to the key stakeholders in communities they are trying to help, is because they’re too enthralled with elite experts who seem to have all the answers. In a way, that’s understandable, given the circles that billionaires travel in, where they’re much more likely to meet bestselling authors, Harvard professors, scientists, and other denizens of TED-land than to connect with, say, an immigrant rights advocate working in a low-income neighborhood.”

Inside Philanthropy, Seven Mistakes That New Billionaire Philanthropists Make — and How MacKenzie Bezos Can Avoid Them, David Callahan, May 29 2019

Callaghan also goes on to give recommendations to Bezos on what she (and other uber wealthy philanthropists) could do to improve the outcomes of their gifts - we’ll talk more about this in the June 25th The Provocateur. What are your thoughts on how Mackenzie Bezos could proceed and do you have any ideas on how super wealthy philanthropists could change their methods of giving for the better?


And whether as a fundraiser or as a not for profit, you are talking with a regular donor or to someone who is a major gift giver, or with the beneficiaries of those gifts, listening is critical, and not just listening, but hearing them. And then taking the time to ensure we are not making assumptions based on our own biases and perspectives, but that we truly have heard and understood what they are telling us. At ViTreo, we counsel our clients to be certain their paths and the needs of their stakeholders and communities are aligned. When we don't take that key step and instead move forward, collectively, we may leave many gifts on the table and/or head in the wrong direction. As we all know, it's a really good idea to confirm you've got the right destination and corresponding directions before you head down any road!

Our next blog will take us down another less scenic path - one where we’ll talk about the dark side of philanthropy and recent investigations into how some elite givers purporting to change the world and help others, intend only to help themselves.


For more on this topic, I highly recommend, The Givers: Money, Power, And Philanthropy In A New Gilded Age, which investigates “the secretive world of elite philanthropists - and how they’re quietly wielding ever more power to shape American life in ways both good and bad” (Penguin Random House) It is a must-read!

Check out ViTreo's Braintrust as we bring you additional insights into what is and what will be important in philanthropy through our Weekly News Recap and our Podcast.



Andrea McManus, Chair, Board of Directors, Partner
ViTreo Group Inc

Andrea McManus is a Partner with ViTreo with over 30 years’ experience in fund development, marketing, sponsorship and nonprofit management. A highly strategic thinker and change maker, Andrea has worked with organizations that span the nonprofit sector with particular focus on building long-term and sustainable capacity. 

Andrea McManusComment