ASU Lodestar Center


Philanthropy puzzle pieces

As philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announces her open call, Arizona nonprofits reflect on the impact of her earlier gifts

April 5, 2023 — MacKenzie Scott made headlines across the world in late March with her Open Call, inviting nonprofits across the U.S. to apply for a $1 million donation from the billionaire herself. 250 organizations will be selected, after a nearly year-long consideration process ending in March 2024.

This would not be the first time that Scott made international news. Since her divorce from Jeff Bezos in 2019 and subsequent rebirth as a billionaire philanthropist, Scott has been no stranger to the public eye in the last decade.

However, it may have been the same public scrutiny that Scott had been subjected to in 2019 that inspired a different approach to her philanthropy since 2020. A far reach from the open call of this year, Scott previously used a much more secretive process for her donations to nonprofit organizations across the world: quiet research.

The foundation established by Scott, Yield Giving, utilized a small team to identify donation candidates and amounts entirely in secret. Organizations were approached unceremoniously with a no-strings-attached donation to be used however they wished. Many of them took advantage of Scott's unorthodox approach to launch innovative programs not otherwise possible.

One of the organizations selected in Arizona was YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix

As an association under the national organization, YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix has advanced its mission of achieving racial-justice and gender equality through on-the-ground activity. The nonprofit hosts workshops, distributes meals, and more to support its community in the Phoenix area.

Despite its long history of impactful community-centric work, the organization never expected the $1 million donation it received in 2020.

“I got this email one day that, really, I thought was a scam,” said Debbie Esparza, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix. “I ignored it at first, and then they emailed me again. And then someone called me and said, ‘No, this is real — we have a donor who would like to make a gift to your organization.’”

After ending the call, Esparza hung her head and cried.

“To be recognized for the work that we were doing in the frontlines during the pandemic to feed vulnerable older adults, as well as the other work we were doing in financial education,” she says, “it was just so moving.”

Scott’s donation was nothing short of transformational for the YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix. The organization was able to use the funds to lead a multitude of new programs to help support its community. Racial Equity Action & Learning – Theory of Change (“REAL-TOC”), for example, is a 12-week program meant to encourage not just racial equity discussions, but actions. 

“The teams in this program are working together with their organization to look at policies, program conditions, and other aspects to be sure that they're looking at race and gender equity in how they operate,” says Esparza.

Debbie at YWCA Health Fair
Debbie Esparza (left), CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix, stops by the AARP table at a YWCA health fair last fall. Debbie's organization received a $1 million gift from MacKenzie Scott's Yield Giving in 2020. Photo courtesy YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix.

YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix’s operations do not just apply to community service. It also supports its fellow nonprofit organizations through programs like the Equity in S.T.E.A.M. initiative. The program offers grants for nonprofits that offer projects supporting social equity in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.) fields, with the aim of leveling the disparity of minority and female participation in these industries. According to Esparza, these grants have already been extended to 35 nonprofits serving underprivileged communities. 
“Being able to have the flexibility to take on this critical work is the courage that (Scott’s) funds gave to us,” she says, “it’s truly a game changer.”

The Greater Phoenix Urban League (GPUL) received another one of Scott’s donations in 2022. 
The GPUL is just one of more than 90 affiliates of the National Urban League based in on-the-ground offices across the U.S.. The equal sign logo shared by all National Urban League affiliates is a representation of the civil rights and equality they hope to spread.

The Greater Phoenix organization found its roots in the valley in 1945, sharing the state of Arizona with the Tucson Urban League to the south. It describes itself as an “agent of change,” working to support underserved and minority communities in the fields of “economic empowerment,” “housing,” “education,” “civic engagement” and “health and wellness.”

According to the GPUL President George Dean, much of the funds donated by Scott are going towards expanding existing programs. The organization’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which places young participants in jobs with government entities, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations, has seen a great deal of growth due to increased funding.

“We had 15 students last summer. This summer, we got to have 150 students,” Dean says.

Through this program, the GPUL hopes to instill real-life career skills in the young participants, as well as give them the confidence to achieve in the future.

“We want these young people to feel very proud of themselves. We found that a lot of youngsters, especially from low-income communities, don’t have a high level of self-esteem,” says Dean. “My experiences have taught me that the higher the level of self-esteem, the greater the possibility of succeeding in what you’re trying to achieve.”

While the GPUL was surprised by and appreciative of Scott’s generosity, its president acknowledges that there is still more work to do to achieve the organization’s mission of social equity.

“It’s really been a struggle and the donation helped remove some of that,” Dean says, “but there’s still more to be done and we’re still looking for ways to make that happen.”

The Yield Giving Open Call will be accepting registrations to apply until Friday, May 5, 2023. Applications will be due on Monday, June 12, before 4 p.m. Central Standard Time. Awardees of the $1 million unrestricted operating gifts will be announced in early 2024.

Story and illustration by Lillian Finley, ASU Lodestar Center.

This story is part of the Nonprofit Social Innovation Hub, where organizations can find ideas and inspiration from their colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropic community, from new operating models to fresh technology solutions.

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