MacKenzie Scott

MacKenzie Scott at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 4, 2018.

Tammy White was stunned last month when the phone call came informing her the United Way of Berks County was selected to receive a $10 million gift from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“I was shocked,” White, president of the United Way, said Thursday. “I teared up. I thought ‘Is this real?’”

Word of the major grant, the largest received in the organization’s 95-year history, came last month on the same day the United Way celebrated its successful 2020 campaign

The news of Scott's grant was so exciting White had a hard time keeping it to herself. However, she said, the United Way was asked not to make the good news public until after Scott made her announcement.

Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, received one-quarter of Bezos’ Amazon stock in their divorce settlement in 2019 and is the third richest woman in the world, according to Forbes

She was named to Forbes 2020 list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

Scott announced Tuesday, via a post on Medium, that she had given more than $4.1 billion in grants to 384 organizations, including the United Way, that are helping fulfill the basic needs of those struggling in the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott wrote on the open idea-sharing platform. “Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

White said Scott’s gift comes at a critical and challenging time when demands for United Way and its community partners’ services are unrelenting due to the pandemic and resultant social and economic upheaval.

“The one-time grant represents an incredible opportunity and a responsibility to create significant, sustainable impact beyond what is accomplished annually through the ongoing generosity of our donors,” White said, stressing the grant does not replace funds donated through the annual campaign, but provides an opportunity to do more.

No decision has been made yet as to how the money will be directed, she said, noting a special committee of United Way board members will develop specific strategies.

“We have a unique opportunity to fund initiatives and programs that will make a transformative impact and benefit the future of the community,” White said.

The committee also will be responsible for fund management, program investment and reporting associated with the grant. As a recipient, the United Way is required to provide Scott with an annual report for the next three years and share details on the program investments, lessons learned and achievements.

Last year, Scott committed to The Giving Pledge, which was established in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as an effort to organize billionaires to pledge to give away half their wealth. Earlier this year, also in a Medium post, Scott said she donated $1.7 billion to nearly 120 nonprofits. The gifts were primarily directed to work creating equity, economic stability and improved health.

To select the 384 recipients for the latest round of giving, Scott’s team sought suggestions and perspective from hundreds of field experts, funders, nonprofit leaders and volunteers. They narrowed the field of 6,490 organizations to 822 and undertook deeper research on these, combing through thousands of pages of analysis on community needs, program outcomes and each non-profit’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of funding.

“One of the reasons we were told United Way was selected was based on our track record as an effective leader and collaborator who invests funds in the community, producing the greatest impact on the most significant needs,” White said.

Joanne Judge, chairwoman of the United Way’s board of directors, called Scott’s gift a “tremendous honor” and said the board is humbled by Scott’s generosity and trust in the organization’s mission and role in “leading community change.”

White hailed the gift as a tribute to all of Berks County. The United Way would not be as successful and as trusted an organization if not for the community’s generosity and collaboration, she said.

“The donors, volunteers, community partners — it’s all those things combined that allowed MacKenzie Scott to have trust in the United Way of Berks County,” she said. “We were identified as a community worthy of this type of commitment. This community deserves to celebrate.”

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