Fresno Unified gets ‘game-changing’ $20 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson was poised to announce great news at a gala event this week: The district’s new foundation had successfully raised $200,000 in college scholarships, mainly from employees. Then he received an unsolicited and unexpected call that MacKenzie Scott, the former spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is giving the foundation 100 times that amount – $20 million – no strings attached. The bank transfer arrived last Friday. Nelson, normally garrulous, didn’t know what to say. “I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this might be one of those times,” he said. Scott, whom Forbes listed as the 18th richest American in 2022 with a net worth of $38 billion, is a novelist turned philanthropist who appears in a hurry to meet her pledge to give most of her fortune away – and then some. Since 2019, she has donated $12 billion to more than 1,200 non-profit organizations. Fresno Unified apparently is the first school district in the United States to receive a grant.

Representatives of Scott are tight-lipped about her donations. They refer all inquiries to essays on the website Medium in which Scott lists all recipients and discusses her philosophy of giving.  No other school district was listed. The last entry was in March. Scott has given hundreds of millions of dollars each to big-name charities: YMCAs-YWCAs; Big Brothers, Big Sisters; Planned Parenthood; United Ways; Second Harvest. Her education giving in California includes CSU Northridge and other California State University campuses, Long Beach City College and other community colleges, advocacy and research nonprofits, including Learning Policy Institute, NewSchools Venture Fund, Kingmakers of Oakland, which focuses on developing Black boys to reach their potential, College Track, and the parent empowerment organization The Oakland REACH.

Nelson doesn’t know why Fresno Unified, the state’s third largest school district with 76,000 students, was chosen. The word from Scott’s representative, Nelson said, was “We’ve heard through multiple venues that the work happening in Fresno is meaningful, worthwhile, and something that we want to support.” “It’s left to us to connect the dots,” Nelson said. One initiative that could have drawn attention, he said, is the district’s dual-enrollment partnership with Benedict College, a historically Black college in South Carolina, and discussions to locate an HBCU in the Central Valley. About 8% of Fresno Unified’s students are Black. Education equity in higher education has been a focus of Scott’s giving.

Or perhaps, he said, it was the district’s efforts to promote student mental health. In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom chose McLane High to promote a $4.7 billion effort to ensure mental health and substance abuse help for Californians to age 25. McLane High has established a mental health hub with a dedicated staff of psychologists and social workers and “is a model for what we hope to achieve,” Newsom said.

Or, he speculated, it was the district’s participation in the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, a national initiative that involves Fresno. The city’s big nonprofits, hospitals, Fresno City College, Fresno State, Fresno Pacific University are working together to improve health and education outcomes for kids, particularly the proportion of kids pursuing a BA degree, Nelson said. One of the funders of StriveTogether is Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic organization whose chief investment and impact officer is Jim Shelton, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Scott is also a funder of Blue Meridian. “I suspect many of the grants are relationship-driven,” said Don Shalvey, former deputy director of K-12 education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who is now CEO of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit working to improve education outcomes in Stockton “I am thrilled for Fresno; this is terrific for the Central Valley,” said Shalvey. “They are unique where they are located and how they are thinking about doing things differently to meet the needs of all students.”

A message about the Valley

Unlike most foundations, Scott’s giving is based on trust. She sets no specific demands for using the money and doesn’t require filing quarterly expense reports. The only requirement is to report back on how the money will benefit Fresno children, Nelson said. The $20 million will enable the new Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools to create an endowment, producing $800,000 to $1 million annually, said Nelson, who is on the foundation board. Initially at least, the grant will enable the foundation to more than quadruple college scholarships. “I’m sure other interests will surface, but fundamentally the idea is that this provides college opportunities for our youth,” Nelson said. But as important as the money, which Nelson calls “a game changer,” is the message the grant sends.

With 90% of students qualifying for subsidized school meals, Fresno is the poorest large urban area in the state. It is not a place high on people’s list of places to move to. “I mean, as a Californian, Fresno’s the last pick for kickball on most occasions, right?” “From a very personal point of view, it’s just incredibly gratifying because I’ve been on this journey of constantly saying, ‘Really good things are happening here. Really wonderful people live here. The diversity of the valley, the agricultural roots of the valley, there’s so much good that’s here,’ “Nelson said. “Now there’s a philanthropist who is well known nationally saying, ‘Fresno, we really believe in the work you’re doing.’ That’s probably worth $20 million easily. The amount of perceptual change that can be generated by a gift such as this to the Valley – it’s almost immeasurable,” he said.

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