MacKenzie Scott stepped out of the long shadow of her former husband, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by handing out billions of dollars in grants over the past two years to charities, community colleges, food banks and progressive nonprofits led by people of color.
Advising her was a team of consultants at a firm that is hardly known outside philanthropic circles but highly influential within them, the Bridgespan Group.
Spun out of the consulting firm Bain & Company as a nonprofit, Bridgespan is one of a host of groups that arose in the early 2000s as a new wave of giving led by tech billionaires was beginning to crest. Two decades later, the consultants working behind the scenes are more important than ever.
Ms. Scott pulled back the curtain a bit in June when, among the 286 groups receiving more than $2.7 billion in donations, were a host of organizations that are basically the plumbing and wiring of the nonprofit world. Among them were the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Charity Navigator and Bridgespan itself, which said it would use its gift mainly to pursue research meant to benefit the sector as a whole.
spreadsheet of gifts and a full-blown foundation with offices on Fifth Avenue.
“Bridgespan occupies a unique perch in the landscape of professional-services organizations serving foundations and high-net-worth families,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. Mr. Walker, who has worked with Bridgespan since he was with the Abyssinian Development Corporation two decades ago, said no firm had been more influential in the past 20 years.
When a group of billionaires and scholars gathered last year to brainstorm reforms for the charitable sector, they met at Bridgespan’s offices in New York. When the Open Society Foundations, by most measures the second-biggest foundation in the United States after Gates, recently began a significant restructuring, it brought in Bridgespan. And, of course, there is Ms. Scott, who shook up the world of philanthropy with donations of more than $8 billion in 11 months.
But some philanthropy experts say relying on consultants can skew which groups get the most funding. “Consultants at places like Bridgespan are setting the menu of what philanthropists can and should do,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy and scholar of philanthropy at the University of Michigan. “The organizations that are stamped with the managerial brand are more likely to get funding.”
Bridgespan was started in 2000 by three men with ties to the for-profit management consultant Bain & Company, including Bain’s then-worldwide managing partner Thomas Tierney. The founders received $1.3 million from the consulting firm and $5.5 million from a group of foundations to see if a dedicated nonprofit could do a better job than for-profit consultants dabbling in pro bono work.
Bridgespan got its start during an era of “venture philanthropy” and “philanthrocapitalism.” In essence, the billionaires knew best and they were going to bring their vaunted analytic practices to the world of nonprofits. A whole crop of groups came up at around the same time, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Center for Effective Philanthropy and the consultants FSG among them. (All received funding from Ms. Scott in her last round of giving.)