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MacKenzie Scott, at an event in 2018.

Jorg Carstensen via DPA via Getty Images

It started with a brief, nondescript email saying there was a donor interested in supporting the work the Borough of Manhattan Community College was doing. The emailer, who did not identify the donor, asked if BMCC’s president, Anthony E. Munroe, was interested in a further conversation.

Munroe was interested, and he agreed to the conversation. He thought the prospective gift might be for tens of thousands, $100,000 tops. He also worried the whole thing might be a hoax.

"Am I going to be punked?" he asked himself.

It was only in the course of the conversation with a representative of the donor that he learned who the donor was: MacKenzie Scott, philanthropist, novelist and, well, the world’s richest woman.

When the representative told Munroe that Scott was giving BMCC an unrestricted gift of $30 million, the largest gift in the history of the institution, he began to cry.

“We have been challenged with so many pressures, financial and otherwise,” Munroe said. “We’re not using this money at all to address any operational deficit. This is going to support initiatives that will help our students.”

BMCC is a minority-serving institution that predominantly serves low-income students: 64.7 percent of students enrolled in spring 2019 received Pell Grants, or federal financial aid. Forty-four percent of undergraduates are Hispanic and 26 percent are African American.

“This is not only life changing. This is life giving, not just to the institution but to the tens of thousands of students that we have the honor to serve each and every year,” Munroe said.

BMCC was not alone in getting a gift of this magnitude from Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Scott announced in mid-December that she had made more than $4.1 billion in gifts over the past four months to 384 organizations, including 35 colleges she described as providing "education for historically marginalized and underserved people" -- mostly community colleges, historically Black institutions and institutions that enroll large numbers of Native Americans.

Soon after her announcement, college after college across the country, urban and rural both, issued press releases reporting "historic," "transformational" or "unprecedented" gifts from Scott. All the institutions are largely focused on educating students from low-income backgrounds or racial minority groups.

"It was really exciting and moving to see so many institutions that haven’t been the big recipients of philanthropic dollars to be on her radar, and at the top of the list for her giving," said Genevieve Shaker, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

"The fact that her giving is unrestricted across many institutions that don’t normally receive gifts like this seems really unusual," Shaker added.

She said while unrestricted gifts go against the trend in higher education giving, they do fit within a broader trend of participatory grant making, where donors try to place more autonomy and decision-making ability into the hands of the communities they're helping.

"As a donor and a philanthropist, she has a wide agenda," Shaker said of Scott. "The problems and challenges she’s working on helping with are very huge indeed. It kind of gives a multipronged strategy of letting the organizations figure out how to make their best contributions, and own that in a variety of diverse ways, because they’re all going to do different things with the money."

Brian Flahaven, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said donors of major gifts typically give restricted funds because they have a specific connection to the institution and want to fund a specific purpose.

"Usually, a donor doesn’t just say, 'I’m going to make this multimillion-dollar gift and I want you to use it however you like,'" he said. "It's not the typical way of doing it. When you think about a donor making a gift to an institution, they’re making an investment."

Among the many gifts Scott made, there was $50 million for Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Texas that plans to put $10 million toward an emergency fund for juniors and seniors with unpaid tuition and fee balances due to financial challenges related to the pandemic, and to use most of the remaining funds to grow its endowment from $95 to almost $130 million.

Among HBCUs, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University received $45 million; Morgan State University, in Maryland, and Norfolk State University, in Virginia, each got $40 million; Virginia State University received $30 million; Alcorn State University, in Mississippi, and Bowie State University, in Maryland, each got $25 million. Claflin University, in South Carolina, got $20 million, while Clark Atlanta University, in Georgia, and Elizabeth City State University, in North Carolina, received $15 million each, and Dillard University, in Louisiana, got $5 million.

West Kentucky Community and Technical College received $15 million, as did Walla Walla Community College, in Washington State. Two community colleges in Florida -- Indian River State College and Santa Fe College -- received gifts of $45 million and $40 million, respectively. Two South Dakota community colleges, Mitchell Technical College and Lake Area Technical College, also received "significant impact" gifts, though they declined to share the amounts.

Lehmann College, in the Bronx -- which like the Borough of Manhattan College is part of the City University of New York system -- received $30 million, bringing the total donated to CUNY institutions to $60 million. Mount Saint Mary's University, a women's college in Los Angeles where 82 percent of students are women of color, got $15 million, as did Northeast Community College, in Nebraska.

"Christmas has come a week early for Northeast Community College," the college said in a press release, adding that it would put the funds in an endowment to support scholarships and student success initiatives across its 20-county service area.

Six tribal colleges also received gifts. The president of Chief Dull Knife College, which is located on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, reported a gift of $1 million. The college enrolled about 300 students before suspending classes for the fall semester due to the pandemic. It plans to resume classes this spring. The Institute of American Indian Arts, an arts-focused institution, received $5 million. Navajo Technical University, which has campuses in Arizona and New Mexico, received $12 million.

"It touched my heart because we’re doing wonderful things in Indian country, especially for our Navajo people … and somebody recognized it," said Colleen Bowman, the provost at Navajo Tech.

"I like the fact that she gave us a gift that didn’t have strings attached," Bowman added. "I think that’s what shocked all of us. 'You know best how to use it,' she said, which was very insightful on her part. We have such needs, and some of the things we are funded for, they have strings attached and we have other needs that are greater, like faculty housing."

Without adequate faculty housing, Bowman said, some faculty and administrators have to commute up to two hours each way to and from the campus.

Scott described the donations in a Dec. 15 article on Medium as "unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached."

She said college administrators were informed of the gifts in telephone calls and were "welcomed to spend the funding on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. They were told that the entire commitment would be paid upfront and left unrestricted in order to provide them with maximum flexibility."

Scott's mechanism for selecting the institutions is somewhat opaque, but she clearly focused on social justice-related indicators. She wrote in the Medium post that her team of advisers "took a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital."

She wrote that the team of advisers "sought suggestions and perspective from hundreds of field experts, funders, and non-profit leaders and volunteers with decades of experience. We leveraged this collective knowledge base in a collaboration that included hundreds of emails and phone interviews, and thousands of pages of data analysis on community needs, program outcomes, and each non-profit’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of funding. We looked at 6,490 organizations, and undertook deeper research into 822. We put 438 of these on hold for now due to insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams, or to allow for further inquiry about specific issues such as treatment of community members or employees. We won’t always learn about a concern inside an organization, but when we do, we’ll take extra time to evaluate. We’ll never eliminate every risk through our analysis, but we’ll eliminate many. Then we can select organizations to assist -- and get out of their way."

Along with colleges, Scott also gave to a vast array of nonprofit groups, including food banks, United Way and YMCA chapters, Meals on Wheels, COVID relief funds, community loan organizations, and groups advocating for racial justice and LGBTQ rights.

The $4.2 billion in gifts announced in December was the second major round of gifts Scott announced in 2020. She has signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment by some of the world's wealthiest people to give the majority of their wealth away to address pressing societal needs.

In July, Scott announced $1.7 billion in gifts, including gifts for six historically Black colleges and universities and to many scholarship-granting or college access organizations variously focused on low-income, racial minority, LGBTQ or undocumented students.

Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State University, an HBCU that received a $20 million gift from Scott in the second round of gifts, described Scott as a leading philanthropist on racial justice issues.

"In a short amount of time, she's made a significant difference across a lot of institutions, but in the HBCU realm I think it’s particularly important," Allen said. "We only represent about 3 percent of all colleges and universities in the country, but we’re still graduating nearly 25 percent of all African American professionals."

Delaware State plans to use its gift to invest in its endowment and create more scholarship opportunities; help fund its ongoing acquisition of Wesley College, another Delaware institution; and expand its recently created Global Institute for Equity, Inclusion, and Civil Rights.

Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania, also received $20 million. President Brenda A. Allen said university leaders are still considering how best to invest the money, but she expects some will go toward establishing endowed professorships and growing need-based scholarships, as well as expanding access to experiential learning opportunities for Lincoln students, including study abroad.

"I think that as a philanthropist, Ms. Scott truly has a heart and a passion for equity," Allen said. "As I look at her gifts over all, they have tended to go first of all to organizations that are definitely not generally in the running for gifts of this magnitude."

Scott's gifts come in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic -- which she characterized in her Medium post as "a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling" -- and the national movement for racial justice and equity spurred by the protests following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd.

In June, Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, a philanthropist, announced donations of $120 million to HBCUs and the United Negro College Fund. They said they hoped their gifts would encourage others to support historically Black colleges.

Flahaven, of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, noted an increasing interest in giving to causes related to diversity, equity and inclusion and to minority-serving institutions specifically. He cautioned, however, that this was an anecdotal observation and not yet reflected in data.

"It will be interesting to see whether these gifts translate into higher visibility for those institutions in terms of attracting other support," Flahaven said. "It’s not often you get such a highly visible gift, and there could be a signaling to other donors from someone making such a significant investment in that institution, 'Hey, there’s something happening here.'"

The president of Indian River State College, Timothy Moore, said Scott's $45 million gift to the Florida community college, the largest in its history, brings "wonderful challenges to us: How do we do this right? How do we make sure that we take her challenge to us and do the most good with it?"

Moore has some areas of need in mind -- a college press release notes that Scott's gift will allow the college to expand its career training and degree programs; grow initiatives that support access and outreach to low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented populations; and embark on capital projects, including the replacement of aging vocational training facilities -- but he said it's too early to say how the gift will be allocated.

"I'd love to say I'm spending $2 million here or $2 million there," he said. "I don't believe that our strategic plan as it is currently configured is sufficient for this kind of capital infusion. I'm going to come back with my team and say, what do we aspire to be?"

Moore said he hopes to host Scott on the campus one day to introduce her to some of the students she will help.

"It is a tremendous opportunity," he said, "to do right."

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