Novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has quietly given over $4 billion — with a b — to nonprofit organizations over the past four months, revealing the stunning rash of giving in a Medium post on December 15.
In the post, she revealed that she and her team had looking into nearly 6,500 organizations and carefully vetted 822, then finally chose 384 organizations to receive significant, unsolicited donations. She said in the post that the careful vetting allowed her to make unrestricted donations — meaning she could trust the organizations with the money and not tell them what to do with it, or attach a lot of reporting requirements.
One of the organizations she trusted was YWCA of Madison.
CEO Vanessa McDowell said she got “a mysterious email” just after Thanksgiving, and at first thought it might be a scam. But the timing couldn’t have been better.
“This was a complete surprise,” she said. “I was at the end of my budget process and struggling with possibly having to (cut) some of our programs and figuring out how to keep staff and programs going. Went on Thanksgiving break, stressed out a bit thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
After that mysterious email, though, she got on the phone with a representative of Scott, who informed her that YWCA would be getting a large donation — with no strings attached.
YWCA was the only Madison organization among the 384 to receive donations, and one of five in Wisconsin.
McDowell declined to disclose the amount of the donation, but said it would allow YWCA of Madison to continue two programs that were in danger of losing their funding entirely.
“We lost funding for our permanent supportive housing program. We’re the largest provider of single women’s affordable housing in Dane County. … And then our Empower Home program, which is our program that serves women and children fleeing domestic violence situations. We did not receive the Department of Justice grant that we had been receiving for that program either.”
Funding for those two programs add up to about $395,000. McDowell said Scott’s donation will allow those two programs to continue for another year, “and then some.”
“I was scrambling trying to figure out, what can we do?” she said. “These are two essential programs in our community that we needed to figure something out for. So basically I got to a miracle that happened right on time.”’
McDowell said the unrestricted nature of the donation is especially welcome at this time.
In her Medium post, Scott wrote that she had carefully researched the recipient organizations because in order to “pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached” — something McDowell appreciates.
“I really believe and hope that this is a start to a shift in the philanthropic community, around unrestricted giving and the power of unrestricted giving to organizations such as ours that serve women and people of color specifically, to change the narrative and change what’s happening in our communities,” she said. “I really feel like if people really understood the power of unrestricted giving, they would know that it’s in good hands, we’re doing good work. Without the strings attached, it allows our work to go further and (allows us) not have to jump through so many hoops. So we’re super excited about Mackenzie just trusting my leadership as a Black woman, (and) trusting the work that we’re doing at YWCA Madison.”
McDowell also stressed that this donation will help keep those programs up and running for a year, but support from the local community remains important, as unexpected gifts from far away aren’t exactly a reliable source of revenue to count on.
“This is just the beginning,” McDowell said. “I really want people to understand that we need sustainable dollars. She’s just sort of setting a bar for the philanthropic community, and I really hope that the philanthropic community follows her lead. We’re going to continue to need dollars to support these programs. The more that we can continue to get unrestricted (donations), just the better that we’re able to not only continue the programs we currently do, but do even more.”
McDowell said this donation, at least, allows her team to think about the future.
“I was asking my staff to dream and it was hard to dream when you don’t have funds to dream with,” she said. “We are really excited and blessed to be able to receive this from McKenzie Scott, because now it can start our dreaming again.”