Lessons from the Fairy Godmother of College Giving
March 19, 2021 | Emily Burden Rees
“This is not only life changing. This is life giving," said Anthony E. Munroe, president of Borough of Manhattan Community College. "Not just to the institution but to the tens of thousands of students that we have the honor to serve each and every year.” In December 2019, a representative of a private donor informed President Munroe that the donor wanted to make a substantial gift to the school. When President Munroe heard the amount—$30 million—he began to cry.
MacKenzie Scott, the world’s third-wealthiest woman, broke private giving records in 2020 with her first philanthropic investment of $5.8 billion, much of which has gone toward higher education. The novelist, Princeton University alumna, and Amazon shareholder signed the Giving Pledge at the end of 2019, promising to give part of her $54 billion net worth back to society and “to do it thoughtfully, to get started soon, and to keep at it until the safe is empty.” Ms. Scott conducted extensive research on potential recipients, giving $842 million to lesser-known colleges and universities over the course of six months. When her assistants contacted university representatives, many thought they were being pranked.
MacKenzie Scott has been described by Inside Higher Ed as a “fairy godmother for once-overlooked colleges,” including community colleges, which serve seven million Americans, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Despite having modest endowments compared to other schools, HBCUs are among the highest-ranking in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report, which rates colleges and universities on the quality of their liberal arts programs. Hopefully, Ms. Scott’s gift will inspire more donors to invest in these invaluable institutions.
Although giving at this scale is out of reach for most Americans, Ms. Scott’s philanthropic process reflects the strategies for effective higher education giving recommended in the Fund for Academic Renewal’s (FAR) signature publication, The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving.
Define your goals. MacKenzie Scott’s values are evident in her philanthropic choices. In a 2020 Medium post titled “384 Ways to Help,” she describes her focus on assisting communities that struggle with "food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.” She gave to tribal colleges, community colleges, and HBCUs in order to accomplish her vision of uplifting low-income and marginalized groups. Like Ms. Scott, donors must take the time to consider what they value and articulate their goals.
Know the landscape. Some programs receive more support than others. Ivy League schools have larger endowments than smaller institutions, and endowments and professional studies receive more funding than the liberal arts and undergraduate programs. Your dollars will be more likely to make a difference if you direct them toward schools and programs that receive less funding. Ms. Scott’s investments in underfunded institutions have been transformational for those campuses.
Select the best. According to MacKenzie Scott’s Medium post, her advising team “took a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results,” ultimately whittling a list of 6,490 potential recipients down to less than 400. She targeted institutions with a track record of stewarding gifts wisely. It is the donor’s responsibility to determine that potential recipients share the same goals and are capable of effectively implementing the gift.
Many of the schools that have received a gift from Ms. Scott have already announced their plans for the new funds. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University will direct its $45 million toward student success, workplace preparation, civic engagement, and academic programs. Alcorn State University and Morgan State University will double their endowments. Howard University will use its $40 million gift to fund capital projects, faculty resources, and a grant that will help students graduate on time.
Dr. Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College in Montana, announced that Ms. Scott’s $1 million gift will provide a resource that most colleges take for granted: Wi-Fi. Wider broadband access will help students connect with family across the rest of the Northern Cheyenne reservation and the state.
Each HBCU that received a gift from Ms. Scott recorded it as their highest in history. President Munroe at the Borough of Manhattan Community College reported that the gift was five times the amount of its largest previous donation. President Timothy Moore of Indian River State College, a recipient of $45 million, noted that the gift brings “wonderful challenges to us: How do we do this right? How do we make sure that we take her challenge to us and do the most good with it?”
Education has always been the engine of economic mobility, and for schools like Chief Dull Knife College and Borough of Manhattan Community College, Mackenzie Scott’s gifts have rebuilt the engine. When done well, higher education philanthropy is transformational. And in her words, “the hope you feed with your gift is likely to feed your own.” In this era, may hope ever be the guiding light.