That’s what Ruth Simmons, the president of a historically black university in Texas, felt in December when she received a call informing her that the school would receive $ 50 million, many times the size of the largest previous contribution it has ever received. Simmons, who runs Prairie View A&M University, thought he had misheard the caller, so he asked for the amount to be repeated: “Five zero.”
The donor this time was MacKenzie Scott, who has rebooted the philanthropic agenda for racial equity without hardly saying a word. Similar stories of surprise have come from across the country last year when universities and nonprofits received unexpected gifts from Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett.
Scott, a 51-year-old novelist, received most of her fortune from her 2019 divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. After the police murder of George Floyd, he financed the main beneficiaries of racial equity donations in 27 states, according to an AP analysis of preliminary data from philanthropic research organization Candid. The data, which includes only contributions from institutional sponsors, shows that Scott was responsible for $ 567 million distributed to such organizations. (Two organizations declined to say how much they received from the philanthropist.)
In at least 11 states, Scott provided the majority of racial equity-oriented contributions to the top grantees. She was the only major donor to these groups in 10 other states, and donations for education dominated her giving.
Scott’s impact in some states could be even greater, because it’s unclear how all of the $ 8.7 billion he has donated since 2020 has been distributed to individual organizations. The impact of donations by state is also difficult to analyze because some of them, such as those given to schools and national organizations, can have broader benefits.
“I have no doubt that someone’s personal wealth is the product of collective effort and social structures that present opportunities for some people and obstacles for many others,” Scott wrote in a July 2020 post announcing $ 1.7 billion. in contributions. . She said her funding decisions were “driven by a deep belief in the value that different backgrounds bring to problem solving on any issue.”
Scott, who later joined Jewett, backed those words with hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to HBCU powers like Morehouse College and Institutions Serving Hispanics, to little-known groups like the Las Vegas COVID-19 Relief Fund. Navajo and Hopi families of Yee Ha ‘ólníi Doo. and chapters of international groups such as United Way.
Many organizations say that Scott’s gifts were the largest they have ever received.
After Scott’s split with Bezos, he vowed to donate most of his wealth, echoing the vows of other mega donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Since then, your donations have gone to organizations focused on racial equity, COVID relief, and other issues. Due to the extraordinary growth in the value of Amazon shares, Scott’s wealth is even greater today, about $ 60 billion, according to Forbes, than it was when he started giving away his money.
That means Scott’s ability to influence philanthropy will continue for the foreseeable future. His intention, he said, is to keep giving “until the safe is empty.” And because their gifts come unconditionally and allow organizations to set their own priorities, it has been a welcome change for many who feel paralyzed by donor pet projects.
“The most precious gifts are definitely those that are not restricted because a complex university has a wide variety of needs,” said Simmons, who notes that those gifts allow universities to deal with their “meat and potatoes” problems.
When Prairie View A&M received Scott’s $ 50 million gift last fall, it created a $ 10 million scholarship fund for students most vulnerable to dropping out of school due to job loss or some other financial stress brought on by the pandemic. of COVID-19. So far, Simmons said, the school has awarded more than $ 5 million in scholarships from that fund, with the rest due in the middle of next year.
“It helped tremendously in terms of addressing the urgent needs of students who were unable to meet their financial obligations,” Simmons said, adding that many Prairie View A&M students work to supplement their financial aid.
A large portion of Scott’s donation, $ 35 million, went toward the endowment of the school, which now stands at $ 143 million.
“This is just in stark contrast to what we’ve seen, particularly in recent decades, as donors have asserted themselves not just through giveaways, but also (by) wanting to be on council or being able to get as close as possible. to things. they’re funding as much as possible, ”said Tyrone Freeman, a professor at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. (AP and Lilly School receive funding from the Lilly Endowment.)
However, Scott’s donations have also sparked some calls for greater transparency. As an individual, you are not subject to the same disclosure requirements that apply to mega donors who contribute through charitable foundations. Your ads also don’t reveal how much you give to individual groups. That means that the amounts these organizations receive are known only if they advertise it themselves. Many have not.
“By providing such significant donations to nonprofits, Scott took on the role of leading benefactor of the US nonprofit sector,” said Maribel Morey, executive director of the Miami Institute of Social Sciences. “Asking for greater transparency is simply giving the public more agency, so they know how and why decisions are made about the public good.”
A spokesperson for The Bridgespan Group, the philanthropic consulting firm that advises Scott on his donations, told the AP that the company does not comment on its clients, but encourages unrestricted donations.
Some of Scott’s racial equity contributions intersected with COVID-19 relief because the effects of the pandemic were felt disproportionately in minority communities. Around the same time that Prairie View A&M received millions, Ethel Branch, a former attorney general for the Navajo Nation who started a COVID relief fund for Navajo and Hopi Native American families in the early days of the pandemic, received a call informing her that $ 10 million was coming her way.
“It was at a time when we had practically used up all of our GoFundMe dollars,” said Branch, who runs the Utah-based COVID-19 Relief Fund for Navajo and Hopi Families. “I couldn’t even go on social media because there were too many people posting about the loss of family members. And it was a really dark time. “
The group, and its 1,300 volunteers, used the funds to provide water, personal protective equipment and food to Navajo and Hopi families in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, Branch said. In total, they reached more than half a million people.
But nearly a year after Scott’s donation, Branch says relief fund resources are dwindling, perhaps as a result of donor fatigue from the pandemic and the assumption that the group will no longer need money due to the Scott’s donation.
In contrast, Prairie View A&M has had more contributions from other donors after Scott’s donation. In universities, large donors often have buildings or centers named after them. However, there will not be a Scott Center at Prairie View. She didn’t want that, Simmons said.
So the HBCU director came up with a “little secret” and set up a writing program named after Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning black novelist who taught Scott during his college days at Princeton University and who hired her as a research assistant in 1992. novel “Jazz.”
“That’s all we could do to show our gratitude for their generosity,” Simmons said.
AP business writer Glenn Gamboa contributed to this report.
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