MacKenzie Scott’s Latest Gifts Target Overlooked Higher Education
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
In a blog post in mid-June, philanthropist and novelist MacKenzie Scott made public her recent charitable gifts totaling $2.7 billion. The donations are intended for 286 diverse nonprofit organizations, colleges, and universities—and they are unsolicited and unrestricted, as were those that made up her last $4 billion in gifts in 2020, which was split between 384 organizations.
Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, received a 4% stake in Amazon as part of the couple’s divorce proceedings in 2019. With her current husband, Dan Jewett, she has signed the Giving Pledge initiated by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, thereby committing to give away a majority of their wealth.
That may be easier said than done—Scott’s wealth has increased by $23 billion since 2019, bringing her net worth to an estimated $60 billion, according to NPR. That’s largely thanks to the rise in Amazon’s stock price during the pandemic, and despite already giving away more than $8 billion. As a result, she's currently the 21st wealthiest person in the world and the third wealthiest woman.
A Focus on Organizations Dedicated to Equity and Social Change
Despite her position, Scott has expressed concern over the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority—especially when that wealth is “enabled by systems in need of change.” She stands out from many other major philanthropists by acknowledging this source of her own wealth.
Accordingly, Scott and her team have focused on giving to organizations dedicated to equity and social change, and on providing unrestricted gifts that the recipients can use as they wish. In her blog post, she explained that those battling these systems' inequities know best how to address them.
Community and Regional Colleges Are Benefiting
Scott discloses her recipients, but not the amounts awarded to them. However, some organizations are making their gifts known. It is clear higher education is getting its fair share—but it looks very different from the gifting usually seen in this arena. Scott's list of recipients includes community and regional colleges, many of which have never received donations of this size before. However, they may need to grow accustomed to an uptick in charitable gifts, as Scott's funds are predicted to lend legitimacy to them and encourage other donors to follow in her footsteps.
"Higher education is a proven pathway to opportunity, so we looked for 2- and 4-year institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved," penned Scott in her blog post announcing the beneficiaries. The gifts of multiple millions will allow recipient institutions to build endowments and start (and staff) new programs. While once-off gifts can’t be relied on to cover operational expenses in perpetuity, many will allocate funds to jump-start further fundraising.
El Paso Community College in Texas Has Received $30 Million
El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas ranks first among 1,200 U.S. community colleges and 16th among all U.S. colleges and universities in degrees awarded to Hispanic students. The five-campus college district has received $30 million from Scott—the largest donation in its history. EPCC President William Serrata told the press he views it as a vote of confidence and recognition of the increased educational attainment the college has helped the El Paso community achieve. Such a gift “positively impacts the lives and prosperity of our entire community,” he said.
Long Beach City College in California Has Received $30 Million
Mike Muñoz, interim superintendent-president at Long Beach City College (LBCC) in California, was overcome to hear his two-year community college was awarded an unsolicited $30 million by Scott—he was so shocked that he initially thought it was a trick. Again, it's the largest gift ever received by the community college, which serves 24,000 students, the vast majority of whom are people of color. Nearly 60% of students identify as Hispanic.
Muñoz told the local newspaper that “we need to dismantle the barriers that sometime prevent our most vulnerable students from succeeding." Over the last five years, the percentage of Black and Latinx students graduating from LBCC has increased more than twofold. Last year, the college adopted an initiative to address institutional racism. Uduak-Joe Ntuk, president of the board of trustees of Long Beach Community College District, said in a statement, "These funds will expand on that work to accelerate academic outcomes, increase economic opportunity and expand upward mobility for generations of LBCC students."
Changing the Face of Philanthropy in Higher Education
EPCC and LBCC are just two examples of many: Pasadena City College also received $30 million, while the University of Central Florida’s $40 million is the largest gift in its history. Florida International University likewise received $40 million, as did the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Scott may be shifting the face of philanthropy in higher education—not just by her choice of recipients, but with the speed and flexibility of her gifting. For any institution, major charitable gifts are typically the result of years or even decades of relationship-building, conversations, and cultivation of donors. For a smaller institution to literally wake up to millions of dollars in unrestricted, unexpected funds is extraordinarily rare.