Student Well-Being

Nonprofit Serving Schools in Need Gets Surprise $133.5 Million Gift From MacKenzie Scott

By Denisa R. Superville — February 03, 2022 4 min read
Then-MacKenzie Bezos arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 4, 2018. MacKenzie Scott is one of the 50 Americans who gave the most to charity in 2020, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual rankings.
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Communities in Schools, a nonprofit program that provides wraparound health and other social service supports for students in need, and its affiliates received a $133.5 million donation from writer and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

The massive gift is the largest in the organization’s history and will set it on a path to expand its programs to all eligible Title I schools in the country, said Rey Saldaña, the president and CEO of the organization, who also once benefited from the program as a high school student in San Antonio.

Title I schools educate large numbers of students experiencing poverty.

“There are 12 million students who are living in poverty, and we want to grow into every Title I school in the country,” Saldaña said. “This is jet fuel for us on how to not only grow, but grow with quality, and grow deep in some of these communities where we know the students and where we are serving in existing schools.
“As we think about how we open up schools to be more equitable,” he continued, “we think that the way we are hoping to design schools—with a Communities in School site coordinator—is a vision for schools in the future.”

The donation, which comes with no strings attached, will be used to grow the organization’s work over the next five years with 40 of its affiliates in 19 states that received individual donations. Some of the affiliates are located in California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. Decisions about expanding to new schools versus adding staff to schools already served by the organization will be made by local affiliates, Saldaña said.

Communities in Schools already serves more than one million students in 2,900 schools in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Coordinators and staff members ensure students have a trusted adult in the school environment and work with them to remove barriers that may prevent them from focusing on academics, such as connecting them and their families with food, housing, mental health services, and social-emotional supports.

Expanding services amid increasing need

Amid the pandemic, caseloads—the number of students that site coordinators oversee—have ballooned, and Communities in Schools workers have pivoted to helping schools and districts with some of their most urgent needs, such as working as re-engagement specialists to help find students who have disengaged from their studies and reconnect them with school.

“Our job is to make sure that we take that pressure off of teachers, that we take that pressure off of principals, because they have enough to focus on with respect to learning loss and catching students up on their academic progress,” he said.

The unrestricted nature of the donation means that CIS can also use some of the money for things like third-party evaluations of its work.

“It’s sometimes difficult to get funders to get behind a longitudinal five-year, two- or three-year study,” he said.

Scott, who is married to a science teacher, has pledged to give away nearly half of her fortune. She’s been making good on that promise, donating billions to organizations working on climate change, gender equality, racial equity, and education.

Scott has donated more than $8.5 billion since 2020, according to CBS News.

Her giving model is unique in philanthropy and the criteria is opaque to outsiders. Her team researches and vets potential recipients, contacts them—and then gives them money to continue doing what they were already doing. She was previously married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Saldaña said he was a little bit skeptical when he received an anonymous e-mail about a month and a half ago, asking to talk over the next day or two.

“We often get a lot of vendors and folks who are selling us things,” he said. “But it became clear very, very quickly that this individual who was calling on behalf of their client had done their homework on us.”

Scott’s team had reviewed CIS’s evaluations, student data, local affiliate leadership, and financial audits, Saldaña said.

“We passed the test we didn’t know we were taking,” said Saldaña, who added that he was “shaking in the moment and quite emotional” when he got the news.

“If you are the head of a nonprofit, there is no way you haven’t heard about MacKenzie Scott and what she has been doing for the last year and a half,” he said.

“The first question that you ask, that your board asks is, ‘How do we get to Ms. Scott so that she knows who we are?’” Saldaña said. “Having now gone through this process, there is no way to get to her. She, through her team, has to find you.”

A new giving model

Saldaña made the announcement on CBS News on Thursday morning.

He revealed the donation to organization Founder and Vice-Chairman William Milliken, who exhaled deeply and shook his head in disbelief when he saw the amount of the donation.

“That’s the total?” Milliken asked. “How in the world did she ever know about us? Holy mackerel.”

Saldaña often credits Communities in Schools with helping him get to where he is.

As a student at South San Antonio High School, his Communities in Schools coordinators helped him through the college application process— even paying for SAT prep classes. That support continued into his first year at Stanford University.

Scott’s gift has the potential to maximize that kind of impact and change the lives of many more students, he said.

“MacKenzie Scott is really changing the landscape of philanthropy and understanding what it’s like to not only share this gift, but to trust organizations and to essentially share power with them,” Saldaña said.
“At a time when there’s so much inequity and imbalance in where power lives and how it is controlled, the ability for her to give to an organization or a nonprofit and to do so with as much trust as she is giving us to do our work—I hope, continues to change the face of the way philanthropy, foundations, corporations think about supporting nonprofits.”

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