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Six Months Later, MacKenzie Scott’s Gifts Are Already Making an Impact

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough was driving when he received the good news: Dillard University, the private historically Black university (HBCU) where he serves as president, was receiving its largest donation ever. He didn’t believe it.

“I said, ‘Wait, let me pull over and confirm,’” Kimbrough said. “We were surprised, just like everybody else.”

Everybody else includes the 384 organizations who received almost $6 billion in donations from philanthropist  MacKenzie Scott in the summer and fall of 2020.  Scott, who gave a third round of gifts just last month to more HBCUs, community colleges, and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), signed “The Giving Pledge” in 2019, where the wealthiest persons in the world agreed to donate most of their wealth to those in need.

Dr. Walter M. KimbroughDr. Walter M. Kimbrough

These donations, although not enough to counter the “problems of 100-year-old institutions that have never been funded on a level commensurate with their impact and their need,” are still a great start, said Dr. Charlie Nelms, the chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University and an HBCU graduate and advocate. He said, more people than ever are giving to HBCUs and MSIs in the “post George Floyd era.” But one of the more remarkable aspects of Scott’s donations is that they came with no strings attached, which “means that the institutions themselves could see where the dollars would best be served.”

Nelms recently penned an op-ed for Diverse about Scott’s philanthropic gifts and offered a blueprint on HBCUs can build on their philanthropic efforts.

With the freedom of no-strings attached, HBCUs are planning to use these funds in a variety of ways including helping their students financially, doubling their institutional endowments, and investing in faculty development. With a new school year slated to begin next month, many of these institutions have already started to put the funds to use.

Dillard University’s leadership team decided the best way to use their $5 million gift would be in outreach, marketing, and enrollment management.

“We’re a small, private university,” Kimbrough said of the New Orleans institution that was founded in 1869. “Dillard has never done a national branding campaign to help craft our message, get the word out, and tell our story.”

Like so many other HBCUs, fall enrollment at the school is up and “the caliber of students accepting our scholarships is up by double digits,” he said, adding that the money set aside for scholarships is allowing the school to be competitive in recruiting students to enroll.

Kimbrough expects to “see impacts of this gift for a decade, probably. We see it as a capacity-building grant. We want to leverage it to bring additional returns.”

Like Kimbrough, Dr. David Kwabena Wilson, president of Morgan State University is looking to leverage the $40 million donation his institution received in Fall 2020. He has already used $500,000 of the gift to create a state-funded community health center. The center will study health inequity in Baltimore, where Morgan State is located.

Dr. David Kwabena WilsonDr. David Kwabena Wilson

“I approached the governor and asked if he’d be open to an annual appropriation of $3 million,” said Wilson, in exchange for Morgan committing a half-million to jump start the project. The governor agreed, and the center opened its doors on July 1.

Scott’s donation to Morgan was the largest donation in the school’s history. The majority was placed into their endowment, but they left $2 million accessible to fund the health center, and buy laptops and hot spots for those students impacted by the pandemic. They gift also helped to fund professional development for faculty and staff so they could build better emotional support for their students as they navigated the difficulties of being in quarantine. 

Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, president of Norfolk State University called the $40 million that her institution received from Scott a “transformational gift.”

“A large portion went to the student endowment,” said Adams-Gaston. “90% of our students need some kind of financial assistance, and a little under 70% are Pell-eligible.”

Norfolk State will use their newly doubled endowment to support its faculty with new development opportunities.  This fall, any faculty or staff member will have the chance in to pitch a creative idea for endowment allocation.

“We don’t know what kind of proposals we’ll see. Our professional staff is so creative, we’re not limiting them.” said Adams-Gaston. The selected proposals could be implemented as early as Spring 2022.

Dr. Javaune Adams-GastonDr. Javaune Adams-Gaston

Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) received $50 million from Scott, the largest donation Scott has given to an HBCU. Like other institutions, PVAMU put most of the Scott donation towards the university’s endowment. But $10 million was set aside for students as a relief fund called Panther Success Grants, made to directly counter financial difficulties experienced during the pandemic.

“To date we’ve allocated $5.2 million to just under 4,000 students,” said Dr. James Palmer, PVAMU’s provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.

The Panther Success Grants are automatically given to students with a balance in their account that would negatively affect their ability to re-enroll in the following semester. The grants could be up to $2,000 per student per semester and the university waived an application process.

“Students are busy,” said Palmer. “Putting up a virtual roadblock means we take away the opportunity for success. We wanted to make this as easy as possible,” he said.

PVAMU’s endowment has almost doubled, allowing for the hiring of new faculty in their colleges of Arts and Sciences, and Education. They created a $3 million endowment, the Toni Morrison Writer in Residence Endowment. With this, they will bring a prominent writer, yet unannounced, to teach over the course of two semesters.

There is an unmistakable gratitude flowing from these college leaders, who each hope that Scott’s philanthropy will encourage others to give too.  Wilson said that he’s been fielding calls from others wishing to support his institution, whether it’s with a donation of five dollars or $5 million.

“We welcome all of them, because it’s coming from their heart,” he said. “I say to the entire philanthropic community, ‘You don’t have to look too hard to find institutions like Morgan, where transformational gifts could really change the United States in significant ways.’”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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