One common mistake of casual observers of philanthropy is to pay too much attention to the person who made all the money and too little attention to that person's spouse, who, quite often, is intimately involved in deciding how the money is given away.
Given this oversight, it's worth taking a close look at MacKenzie Bezos, the wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (read Jeff Bezos' IP profile), who has a fortune, circa today, of over $27 billion. Jeff and MacKenzie are likely to rank as among the biggest philanthropists in coming decades for the simple reason that there is no other good way to deal with a fortune of that size. Hard choices about giving away the money will inevitably have to be made.
To be sure, a super-rich couple can leave those choices until much later or delegate broadly to others. But they still have to establish giving priorities eventually. And from everything we know about major family philanthropy, those decisions are nearly always made jointly by couples. What's more, the wives of billionaires often end up playing the bigger role for the simple reason that the husband is still busy making money.
All of which is why MacKenzie Bezos will have a huge philanthropic footprint one day, regardless of whether she wants that role or not.
While Jeff and MacKenzie have been pretty dormant on the philanthropy front, that is starting to change. And more clues are emerging about the couple's philanthropic interests. What's tricky is figuring out which of the two is passionate about what.
Let's analyze Jeff and MacKenzie's track record of public giving so far, and then look more closely at MacKenzie.
For starters, both Jeff and MacKenzie sit on the board of the Bezos Family Foundation, which was founded by Jeff's parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos. The foundation focuses nearly exclusively on education, which is clearly a passion for Mike and Jackie.
But the giving interests of Jeff and MacKenzie lie more in the medical and scientific realm. In 2009, the couple gave the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center a $10 million challenge gift to expand the use of immunotherapy for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. In 2011, he and his wife, MacKenzie, gave $15 million for the study of neurological disorders at Princeton. (Both are alums of that university.)
And recently, the couple made their biggest gift yet: $20 million to expand the previously funded immunotherapy at the Hutchinson Center to take on lung, ovarian, pancreatic, and colon cancers. (See our story here.)
But here's the thing: Jeff majored in computer science and electrical engineering at Princeton, so support for medical research clearly tracks with Jeff's background, but MacKenzie has a liberal arts background, and so one wonders how that will be reflected in her giving priorities.
MacKenzie Tuttle was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended the Hotchkiss School before going on to Princeton, where she focused on creative writing, working with the novelist Toni Morrison. "I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid," she would later tell Seattle Weekly. MacKenzie helped Morrison research her acclaimed novel Jazz. After Princeton, she became a researcher at the brainy hedge fund run by David Shaw, where she met Jeff. They moved to Seattle together in 1994, where Jeff's business took off.
MacKenzie and Jeff have four children, and parenting has no doubt been a major focus of MacKenzie's life. But she continued to write, working on and off on her first novel for eight years, The Testing of Luther Albright, which she published in 2005, with a glowing blurb from her old professor, Toni Morrison. "Fear and shame made me want to finish," she later said. "'Aspiring novelist'" is not a job title that does a lot for your ego." The novel won an American Book Award.
MacKenzie Bezos has described herself as an introvert, who is "not a natural for big groups," so it's not surprising that she hasn't played a very public role as the wife of Jeff Bezos.
While Jeff is known for his libertarian politics, and donated $100,000 to fight a 2010 state ballot initiative raising taxes on the wealthy, little is known about MacKenzie's politics. Quite possibly, her political views are not very strong and it was revealed recently that she had voted in just two of the past 21 elections. (Jeff also has rarely voted.)
MacKenzie's sparse political contributions don't reveal any clear ideological pattern. Her political contributions closely paralleled her husband's: They have both contributed to Washington's Democratic U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, but also gave money to their state's former Republican senator, Slade Gordon.
By far, the couple's biggest political statement was to donate $2.5 million in 2012 to help legalize same-sex marriage in Washington.
So that's about it for the MacKenzie Bezos file. For now, anyway. From what we can tell, she's a busy mom and a shy writer. So while she'll eventually have to help decide how to give away billions and billions of dollars, MacKenzie appears to be in no hurry to take on that burden just yet.