And why does it matter? you ask. Why am I prying into the business of a private marriage on Philanthropy Women? Well, as it turns out, we now know that the answer to the question — did MacKenzie Bezos get a fair divorce settlement? — has huge implications for philanthropy. MacKenzie Bezos is one of the newest signatories of the Giving Pledge, committing to give away at least 50% of her assets while living.
Divorcing in a community property state like Washington, where all resources are considered jointly owned in a marriage, MacKenzie was eligible to get as much as $69 billion. Much of the talk before the Bezos divorce was final speculated that it could come out as a 50/50 split, with MacKenzie getting an equal amount. The actual number — $37 billion — is quite a bit smaller than that. Of the $137.2 billion estimated net worth of Jeff Bezos, $37 billion is only 26.9% of that. A far cry from a 50/50 split.
Had MacKenzie gotten 50%, somewhere in the range of $69 billion, that would have meant philanthropy would have gotten $34.5 billion out of her signing the giving pledge, not the $17 billion that is now being predicted. That’s a big difference. Think of all of the philanthropy that MacKenzie Bezos is now going to drive going forward for years and years. All of that philanthropy could have been doubled in size, or supporting twice as many organizations and initiatives.
The Bezos divorce is in line with most divorces in the U.S., where women come away with much less than men. After divorce, on average, men’s standard of living rises by about 33%, while women’s drops by about 20%. Other studies have shown that women’s income after divorce drops by an average of 41%. True to form, Jeff Bezos walks away with a net worth still over $100 billion, while MacKenzie is now at a wealth level less than half as high as his.
It may seem like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth by suggesting that $37 billion is not an adequate settlement for MacKenzie Bezos, but if we really want to solve problems for women in society, we have to look at the root of the problem. The root of the problem here is the ongoing divorce gap for women in the U.S. As long as our legal system grants women far less money than men in divorce, women will be in control of far less assets, which will impact their capacity to live well, in the case of most women who are thrust into poverty by divorce, and help others live well, in the case of MacKenzie Bezos and her commitment to the Giving Pledge.
And yet, this settlement has made MacKenzie Bezos one of the richest women in the world, which suggests she has done a lot better than many other divorcees in the 1%. It’s hard to know how well high net worth women generally fare in divorce, since most of this information is kept private. But it would be good information to have, since this information could impact the picture for progressive giving, with women more likely to fuel efforts at diversity, inclusion, and systems change.
Powering Philanthropy after Divorce: Mackenzie Bezos Signs the Giving Pledge
MacKenzie Bezos appears to be in that category of givers focused on diversity and inclusion, being a longtime supporter of marriage equality, and the founder of Bystander Revolution, an anti-bullying effort that emphasizes acceptance, tolerance, and celebration of difference. She has also supported efforts to bring more Veterans into political office (inclusion) and to help undocumented immigrants attend college (diversity and inclusion). In addition, she has been a significant funder of cancer and Alzheimer’s research.
MacKenzie Bezos is also a fiction writer, bringing an unusual capacity for creative thinking with her as she forges her way toward giving away half of her $37 billion divorce settlement. MacKenzie Bezos is the author of two novels and received the 2006 American Book Award for her novel The Testing of Luther Albright.
Given all these resources, MacKenzie Bezos has a great deal to offer philanthropy. She articulates her reasons for signing the Giving Pledge with a particular attention to the value of relationships, another important theme in feminist philanthropy. Who knows if MacKenzie will take a particularly feminist approach as she moves forward with distributing an estimated $17 billion over the course of her lifetime. One can hope.
Here is the full letter from MacKenzie Bezos on deciding to sign the Giving Pledge:
May 25, 2019
Thinking about the Giving Pledge, my mind kept searching its folds for a passage I once read about writing, something about not saving our best ideas for later chapters, about using them now.
I found it this morning on a shelf of my books from college, toward the end of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It was underlined and starred like all of the words that have inspired me most over the years, words that felt true in context, and also true in life:
“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book… The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better… Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
I have no doubt that tremendous value comes when people act quickly on the impulse to give. No drive has more positive ripple effects than the desire to be of service. There are lots of resources each of us can pull from our safes to share with others — time, attention, knowledge, patience, creativity, talent, effort, humor, compassion. And sure enough, something greater rises up every time we give: the easy breathing of a friend we sit with when we had other plans, the relief on our child’s face when we share the story of our own mistake, laughter at the well-timed joke we tell to someone who is crying, the excitement of the kids in the school we send books to, the safety of the families who sleep in the shelters we fund. These immediate results are only the beginning. Their value keeps multiplying and spreading in ways we may never know.
We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand. In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.