How colleges are handling their surprise donations from MacKenzie Scott

by Jeremy

Top officials at Palo Alto College received a strange email late last year. The sender said they were interested in investing in the Texas community college, but the email didn’t include a company logo, address, or phone number.

“In today’s climate, you think it’s more than likely a phishing email,” said Palo Alto President Robert Garza.

When Garza finally decided to talk over the phone with the sender, he learned it wasn’t a scammer but rather a representative for billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who was interested in donating $20 million to the college — its most significant one-time gift yet.

How colleges are handling their surprise donations from MacKenzie Scott

“I thought we broke up, (that) I didn’t hear correctly,” Garza said. “Community colleges like ours, particularly on the south side of San Antonio, where we do some transformational work, often do not receive gifts like this.”

Palo Alto is one of 42 colleges that received a donation last year from Scott, who grabbed headlines when she revealed in a December blog post that she had given away more than $4.1 billion of her fortune. She wrote that her team singled out 384 organizations with “strong leadership teams and results,” with an emphasis on those without much access to charitable donations. She also donated to more than 100 other organizations earlier in the year.

She gave the money with “no strings attached” — a rarity in the higher education fundraising world. Altogether, colleges received more than $800 million from Scott, with individual gifts ranging from $1 million to $50 million, according to Higher Ed Dive’s analysis of press releases and local media reports.

Moreover, colleges typically spend years nurturing relationships with so-called megadonors before they land large gifts, the vast majority of which are reserved for specific purposes.

“Scott’s gifts are certainly an anomaly compared to the typical way that institutions receive transformational gifts,” said Brian Flahaven, vice president of strategic partnerships at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

While some of the colleges that received money from Scott have already earmarked funds for their most prominent goals, officials are essentially still working out how to spend the massive and unexpected donations.

“We are not going just to jump in and make a decision of what to do with that money,” said Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College in Nebraska, which received $15 million from Scott. “We need to be thoughtful and be good stewards of that gift and spend time talking about how it can make the most impact.”

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