In 2019, the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott pledged to give away the majority of her multi-billion dollar fortune. On Wednesday, June 15, several Boston-area organizations reaped the benefit of that pledge.
The East Boston youth music center Zumix received a grant of $1 million — an unexpected windfall that amounts to more than two-thirds of the organization’s annual operating budget. Executive director Madeleine Steczynski first learned about the grant about a week ago, when she received a “cryptic email” in her inbox on behalf of an anonymous donor. Reluctantly, she gave the mysterious emailer her cell number. “I sort of went through all of the questions you’d ask, and we actually got to a place where I actually believed she was being sincere,” Steczynski says. “And literally broke into tears.”
Zumix plans to invest the funds toward long-term stability. “[Zumix] has evolved, with everyone’s input, into something so much bigger than me,” said Steczynski, who founded the nonprofit 30 years ago. “With all my heart, I want it to live on well beyond me. And this, I think, is the first really significant thing that gives me real confidence that it will.”
The beneficiaries of Scott’s surprise donation range from dance troupes to universities to racial justice organizations, and include 23 New England nonprofits. Scott singled out the arts as an area of focus in her Medium post announcing the gifts. “Arts and cultural institutions can strengthen communities by transforming spaces, fostering empathy, reflecting community identity, advancing economic mobility, improving academic outcomes, lowering crime rates, and improving mental health,” she wrote. The gifts, she said, were “relatively large,” with no strings attached as to how the recipients could use the funds.
The lack of restrictions opens up a world of possibilities for small community arts organizations. “Because it is unrestricted, it can be used over multiple years,” said Celina Miranda, the executive director of the Jamaica Plain-based Hyde Square Task Force, which received what Miranda described as a “significant” grant. “It really can help with the sustainability of our organization, and our ability to innovate and improve.” The organization's operating budget is almost $1.66 million.
The Theater Offensive, a Boston nonprofit serving queer and trans youth of color, received a substantial gift, the exact amount of which is planned to be announced later this week. Executive director Harold Steward described the grant as “transformative.” “You constantly ask yourself, ‘Is this real?’” Steward said with a laugh. “It boosts confidence in ways. I think we…walk around the world a little bit differently.”
Steward said the organization, which has an operating budget of around $1.7 million, would put the money toward raises and enhanced benefits for staff, expanded programming, new initiatives and investments.
Scott is a novelist and the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Her high-profile split from the tech titan in 2019 left her with an estimated $36 billion in Amazon stock, and her fortune has since grown to an estimated $60 billion. This is her third round of giving in less than a year, earning her a reputation as the rare philanthropist seemingly committed to giving away wealth faster than she amasses it.
But in her Medium post, Scott cautioned against centering her in the story. “People struggling against inequities deserve center stage in stories about change they are creating,” she wrote.
This article was originally published on June 15, 2021.