The MacKenzie Scott Effect

How Billionaire Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott Transformed Six Sarasota Nonprofits

In more than one case, the Scott grant was the largest individual gift in the nonprofit’s history.

By Elizabeth Djinis August 29, 2023 Published in the September-October 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

When MacKenzie Scott divorced Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2019, the novelist became one of the richest women in the world. But Scott did not plan to keep all that wealth to herself. Instead, she penned an essay pledging to share the “disproportionate amount of money” in her bank account.

“My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful,” she wrote. “It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

But Scott’s “approach to philanthropy” is unusual, to say the least. Rather than issue splashy, attention-seeking statements, she has so far preferred to announce her contributions in a series of brief Medium posts. And rather than ask nonprofits to apply for grants, she compiled a team of advisers who privately selected and vetted each group. (That approach changed this year, when Scott announced an open call for community-led organizations.)

Scott has remained tight-lipped about her contributions. She rarely participates in interviews and her philanthropic website offers little to no contact information. Instead, there is this simple warning: “In order to cede focus to the organizations we’re supporting, we choose not to participate in events or media stories.”

Today, Scott is estimated to be worth $26 billion, according to Forbes, and by late 2022, she had already given more than $14 billion to more than 1,600 nonprofits. That total includes major gifts ranging from $3 million to $20 million that have gone to six nonprofits in the Sarasota area. In more than one case, the Scott grant was the largest individual gift in the nonprofit’s history, and in every case, the money has supercharged its mission and impact.

Goodwill Manasota was the recipient of $10 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Goodwill Manasota was the recipient of $10 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Goodwill Manasota: $10 Million

Donn Githens, president of Goodwill Manasota, calls the organization “one of the best-kept secrets in the world.”

“People see our stores and our donation centers,” he says, “but the impact that we have behind the scenes—with the delivery of our mission to both our team members as well as people in the community—could stop a team of oxen in their tracks if someone completely understood what we do.”

So when the group discovered it would be receiving a $10 million gift from Scott at the end of 2020, it focused on how to achieve “the greatest and best use of 
those funds.” That began with forming a committee to partner the board of directors with staff to identify specific programs that could benefit. Githens says the  litmus test came down to three key factors: How could Goodwill leverage funds “to amplify our impact, feed new initiatives and  help ensure Goodwill is here in the future?”

The money eventually trickled down to a variety of sectors, from funding Goodwill workers’ post-graduate education to expanding services in rural counties, helping other Goodwill chapters generate revenue and even purchasing property to provide funds for years to come.

In particular, Githens talks proudly about the organization’s JobsPlus Language program, which works to hire and train employees with limited English proficiency, as well as those with disabilities or disadvantaging conditions.

Roughly 71 percent of Goodwill Manasota’s more than 800 team members have either a disability or a “self-identified disadvantaging condition,” from using English as a second language to living in a single-parent household.

Off the top of his head, Githens lists multiple employees by name who were able to graduate with a high school or bachelor’s degree because of funds from Scott. For one employee, Goodwill Manasota leaders even hosted a cap-and-gown ceremony with his actual high school diploma. The employee posed for pictures with his son, who is currently in high school.

While Scott’s gift has helped the organization achieve its goal, Githens emphasizes that 2020 was an extraordinary financial year for the nonprofit. After closing stores at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Goodwill Manasota reopened its shops in May 2020 to great demand and an influx of donations. At the same time, the group received a $4 million Paycheck Protection Program loan.

“It gave us such an injection of cash that we were able to do a lot of great things,” Githens says.

Easterseals Southwest Florida: $3 Million

The “creative approach” that Mac- Kenzie Scott’s team took to awarding its contributions may have caught some nonprofit leaders off guard, but not Tom Waters, president and chief executive officer of Easterseals Southwest Florida. He found it validating.

“For us, it was not a typical approach where nonprofits ask for the money—it was a donor seeking the highest and best opportunities with particular criteria,” he says. “To be sought out and selected was very affirming.”

The $3 million gift from Scott’s team to Easterseals Southwest Florida in 2020 was a “relatively small percentage” of the organization’s annual budget, Waters says, but it was more than just a mere sum—it was a gift that inspired other people to give, as well.

“It highlighted our underserved population and created additional confidence for others to come alongside,” Waters says. In the last two years, the organization was able to open its new Autism Center of Excellence and become certified internationally. “To have that kind of program enhancement in the last two to three years is pretty special,” Waters says.

Easterseals Southwest Florida was one of 22 of the national nonprofit’s chapters to receive funding from Scott. For the local organization, it came at the perfect time. The arrival of Covid-19 had already made it difficult to provide and expand therapies for children and adults with disabilities. With the influx of funds, Easterseals was able to not just continue what it was already doing but add diagnostics and in-home early intervention programs.

Waters offers an important statistic to put the gift in perspective: Every dollar invested at Easterseals for disability services returns $8.60 in future savings. In general, a diagnosis of a child with a disability could take up to a year or more. Now, with local services, children can be diagnosed in a couple of months and have nine additional months of treatments, Waters says, “at the most important stage.”

Nationally, autism diagnoses in children are on the rise. Numbers in the last 20 years have increased from one in 150 to one in 36. But Easterseals doesn’t just want to serve children at diagnosis. The organization wants to help them through life, and that includes employment. Roughly 75 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed. To combat this, the local chapter offers job training.

Its work also provides relief for parents trying to do their best for their children. Providing for a child with autism can be equivalent to a full-time job. Before coming to Easterseals, one family went to five different locations to receive various therapies. Now, they receive physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and behavioral therapy all in one place. With the additional time saved, the child’s mother was able to go back to work.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast received $3.6 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast received $3.6 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast: $3.6 Million

It was a case of fortuitous timing for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast when it learned in November 2022 that it would be receiving $3.6 million from Scott. According to the organization’s chief executive officer Joy Mahler, the nonprofit had recently purchased a building with the plan to open a mentor center, and the timing could not have been more perfect.

“It was like when two hopes and dreams come together as one,” Mahler says.

The mentor center and an adjacent outside park area will serve as a training site and meeting location for “bigs” and “littles,” as mentors and mentees are called, and provide space for other community organizations to gather. The nonprofit plans to launch a $7.5 million capital campaign this month and hopes to host a grand opening by January 2024. The existing building is currently in the process of being remodeled.

“Where we started was the vision. What this gift has allowed us to do is expand our vision,” Mahler says. “It has allowed us to dream bigger.”

While the timing may seem written in the stars, Mahler’s team didn’t use the entirety of the funds for one purpose. Instead, they referred to their strategic plan, which outlined a number of goals. Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast has a 10-county footprint and wanted to expand its outreach in DeSoto and Hardee counties. It did that by hiring local staff and opening offices in those communities. The matching process for bigs and littles there is already underway, Mahler says.

Next, some of the funds went toward enhancing the Joy Mahler Scholarship Fund, which helps littles pursuing post-secondary education or certifications. “The youth that we work with have tremendous potential,” Mahler says, “but may not always have the resources to live their dreams.”

As the organization gears up to raise more funds for the mentor center, Mahler points to the Scott gift as an affirmation of the nonprofit’s ability to be good stewards of the contributions they have received.

“We have spent hours figuring out what our best strategy is for these goals,” Mahler says. “We know our strategic direction, but how do we want to maximize these dollars to get there?”

Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County: $3.2 Million

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in early 2022 when Dawn Stanhope, the president and chief executive officer of Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County, got the call. “I was stunned speechless,” Stanhope says. “The caller said, ‘You can’t tell anybody.’ Even my husband didn’t know. I thought I was really being tested on this one.”

But Stanhope didn’t have to hold onto the secret forever. Within an hour of Scott’s public launch of that round of recipients, Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County had a press release ready to be sent out.

“We wanted our donors to know that when they give to us, they can feel confident that we are good stewards of the resources,” Stanhope says. “This was a way to elevate that and to leverage this commitment.”

Stanhope may have been stunned when she learned of the donation, but she didn’t need to be—the organization had already put in place internal policies directing how to spend a “large, unexpected gift.” Once Scott’s funds came in, it was just a matter of putting those puzzle pieces together.

The directions, approved by the nonprofit’s board years ago, were as follows: The first $10,000 would stay in operations, 10 percent of the funds after that would go into a board-designated reserve for strategic initiatives, and the rest—roughly $2.8 million, in this case—would go straight into the nonprofit’s long-term reserves, which support its annual operating budget.

While Stanhope realized that the opening of a new club might have created a more visible symbol of the impact of Scott’s gift, the emphasis, she says, was always on ensuring the chapter can be successful for years to come.

“We’ve been around 76 years, and we want to make sure we are around at least that long going forward,” she says. “We know that what we do is important for our community.”

In the meantime, Stanhope sees immediate needs that still need to be addressed. One of those is workforce education and preparing students for jobs immediately after high school. This summer, for the second time in a row, the organization matched a number of kids with the cartridge valve manufacturer Sun Hydraulics, giving them the chance to get the feel of a real job.

Even for the participants who came away finding the program not the right fit, it was a success, Stanhope says. It’s that kind of trial-and-error and experience that she wants to provide so that when the time comes for students to make decisions about their future, they choose wisely.

United Way Suncoast: $20 million

When United Way Suncoast chief executive officer Jessica Muroff first received an email from Scott’s team, she did the unthinkable: She ignored it. It looked like spam.

But that didn’t deter the writer of the message. When Muroff received a follow-up email requesting a call, Muroff decided she would take it—even if it was scheduled during a weekend. “Do you know who MacKenzie Scott is?” the caller asked Muroff. “She wants to give United Way Suncoast $20 million.”

Muroff was in shock. Having expected a fraudulent caller and instead getting something else altogether, she responded with just one question: “Why?”

She recalls that moment now with both mortification and gratitude. The $20 million gift from Scott became the largest in United Way Suncoast’s history, at least as far back as paper records go. The local chapter of the international nonprofit was one of 46 to receive a grant from Scott in one of her first rounds of funding.

“The $20 million gift we received from MacKenzie Scott two years ago almost seems prescient,” Muroff says. “We were so incredibly honored, but we also viewed this as a community gift. We are committed to making sure that our region knows exactly how we’re investing those dollars.”

For the nonprofit, the gift seemed to come at the perfect time. United Way had just finished its strategic planning process and had some idea of how it might want to spend the funds. But Muroff, ever a proponent of community input, didn’t want to rely on that. Instead, she created a task force of board members, community partners and staff members. They worked over four months to build a plan for the grant.

Ultimately, the organization focused on five key goals: easing the housing crisis, deepening early learning work, helping nonprofits build capacity, responding to Hurricane Ian and, finally, investing in United Way’s own infrastructure. Within the first year, United Way was able to help more than 5,000 people dealing with housing instability through programs like rental assistance and legal aid for people facing eviction.

“For our community partners and our board members, it was a big ‘aha!’ moment that we were in the midst of a major community crisis,” Muroff says. “We had to address the acute needs in our community.”

The experience of reacting to an emergency and then trying to offset its impacts set a precedent. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September 2022, United Way once again jumped into action, deploying $500,000 “immediately,” Muroff says, to impacted families. Responding quickly to both the housing crisis and Ian has left an indelible mark on how the nonprofit plans to conduct itself going forward.

“We built this muscle,” Muroff says. “We’re going to make sure we have a fund we can rely on to address emerging needs in communities and bring in partners to do that efficiently, quickly and successfully for families.”

Muroff emphasizes that United Way leaders never viewed Scott’s gift as solely theirs. The organization funded 28 nonprofit partners through its work on the housing crisis, and by expanding early learning initiatives at certain Title I elementary schools, it also now serves 41 preschools and is partnering with multiple school districts.

Behind the scenes, Muroff’s team is also working to make local nonprofits stronger. United Way funneled funds to a pilot program for 45 grassroots 
organizations looking to strengthen infrastructure and improve development, hoping to set up local nonprofits for future success.

And it turns out that Scott’s gift may have done the same for United Way. Just three months after her $20 million donation, the nonprofit announced a seven-figure gift from another donor.

“It has raised awareness about our work. It has elevated conversations,” Muroff says. “It’s a pride point, and I think it’s been transformative.”

Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee received $4 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee received $4 million from MacKenzie Scott.

Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee: $4 Million

It’s a common refrain: At first glance, the email from Scott’s team looked like spam. But the writer insisted on speaking only with Maribeth Phillips, Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee’s president and chief executive officer. During the resulting phone call, Scott’s representative explained that Meals on Wheels would be receiving a no-strings-attached $4 million gift from Scott. The only wrinkle: Phillips could tell no one other than her board chair and finance head.

That was two and a half years ago. Since then, the nonprofit has harnessed the funds to raise its client count from somewhere in the 500s (before Covid-19) to more than 900 people.

The process of deciding how to spend the money involved executive leadership, staff and the board of directors. The money helped upgrade the nonprofit’s existing office building and expand its client call center for faster responses. The organization also built a nutrition training center to educate children and seniors about how to eat healthy. And, perhaps most visibly, it purchased a refrigerated truck for its food bank that allowed it to pick up and give out more food.

“What a transformational gift for this organization,” Phillips says. “It is ensuring we are sustainable for the future and that we can continue our mission here in Manatee County. It has enabled us to increase our capacity.”

Scott’s gifts also came with an unusual detail, albeit a happy one: They were essentially unencumbered. Unlike some grants, which have extensive reporting requirements, Scott only asked her recipients to send a letter, no more than two pages, each year for three years detailing the gift’s impact. By the final year, Phillips says, Meals on Wheels was told that the letter was no longer even obligatory.

While the $4 million gift has changed things for Phillips, she says it has also deterred a small number of donors from giving to the organization. According to Phillips, some people may perceive the organization to be well off and want to focus on some of the area’s less fortunate nonprofits.

But “we still need donations,” Phillips says. “The fact that we have been vetted and gone through this process with people across the country and that our nonprofit was selected here in Manatee County speaks volumes.” 

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