We’ve been researching foundations and donors, and the way they interact with the nonprofits they fund, for two decades. We have heard many funders announce their arrival by declaring they’re taking a new, innovative approach to philanthropy: charting a new path and rejecting the old approaches.

Almost invariably, it’s not true. What they’re doing may be new to them, but it’s not really new at all. And, almost invariably, the “new” approach doesn’t work out as planned. Effective philanthropy, it turns out, is complicated.

But when MacKenzie Scott entered the scene, in the summer of 2020, we thought, OK, this really is new — and unprecedented. It’s true, on the one hand, that no single element of her giving is new. Other donors and foundations have given large, unrestricted gifts and sought to prioritize equity (see, for example, the Ford Foundation’s BUILD program). Others have streamlined proposal and reporting processes or given surprise, out of the blue gifts. Others have made an effort to support organizations led by people who share demographic characteristics or life experiences with those they serve.

While none of the particulars of Scott’s giving approach are new, she has combined them at a scale and in a way that is unprecedented, and that has captured the attention of nonprofits and donors alike. Consider this: the median gift in Scott’s first year of giving was $8 million, according to responses to a survey we conducted earlier this year; the median grant of large foundations in CEP’s extensive Grantee Perception Report (GPR) dataset is $100,000. And to most of the nonprofits that received these grants, the experience has certainly felt different. “The amount of money didn’t even feel real,” said one leader of a recipient organization. “What felt more real was the pride and validation that the work I was doing mattered, and somebody had noticed.”

That’s why we decided Scott’s approach needed to be studied, in a three-year effort we began nine months ago. Our first report on findings from that study, Giving Big: The Impact of Large, Unrestricted Gifts on Nonprofits, is out today — and we believe it holds important lessons for donors at all levels of giving.

Read the full article about MacKenzie Scott’s giving by Phil Buchanan and Ellie Buteau at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.