United Way of SW La. gets $5 million donation

Published 10:46 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Rita LeBleu

United Way of Southwest Louisiana has been awarded a $5 million donation  — the single largest individual gift in the 80-year history of the organization.

The donor is MacKenzie Scott, author and philanthropist.

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“She’s a blessing, that’s what she is,” said Denise Durel, United Way of Southwest Louisiana president and CEO. “Someone who really cares about the world she lives in.”

The gift was unsolicited and unexpected, according to Durel.

Scott said in a news release that her donation was part of a pledge “to give the majority of my wealth back to the society that helped generate it, to do it thoughtfully, to get started soon, and to keep at it until the safe is empty.”

Scott said she gathered a team of non-profit advisors to help her give “immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the (COVID) crisis,” she wrote in a post on Medium, a digital publishing model that “promotes substance and authenticity.”

The advisors identified 6,000-plus organizations with strong leadership teams and results in communities “facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates and low access to philanthropic capital.”

The field was narrowed down to more than 800 organizations. Leaders of these organizations received a call from a MacKenzie Scott team member.

“They had clearly done their homework. It didn’t feel so much like an interview as a fluid conversation,” Durel said, who admits she screamed and cried when she found out the United Way of Southwest Louisiana made the short list.

The five-parish region has been hit exceptionally hard this year between the economic and health crises of COVID-19 and Hurricanes Laura and Delta, Durel said.

Scott referred to the pandemic as a “wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling.”

“We are dedicated to ensuring that these funds pave the way for a truly sustainable future for generations to come,” Durel said.

No decisions have been made. Durel said her team would focus on measurable outcomes and how to help the greatest number of people in the greatest capacity. The organization’s existing 211 helpline can pinpoint the most pervasive needs in the area.

Operations that were face-to-face and boots on the ground seemed to be one of the factors unifying Scott’s selections. Durel noted the way United Way of Southwest Louisiana responded after Hurricane Laura, and how a proactive plan could help with future disaster relief, including a space for storing donations and making it less challenging to assist in outlying areas.

“We’ll start with the end in mind,” Durel said. “It’s a big responsibility and we do feel the weight of that.”

Durel added the gift would be returned to the community in ways outside of its normal budget and grant processes. Working with the non-profit’s board members and stakeholders, Durel said Scott’s gift is a “game changer” in terms of long-range planning and development.

“We’ll be looking to other markets, communities our size and larger, communities that are ahead of the curve,” Durel said. “We consider ourselves students continually learning how to create change for the better.”

Forty-six United Way groups received funds from Scott. United Way of Southwest Louisiana was one of three United Ways in the state to receive funds.

“Like I tell my staff,” Durel said. “You never know what today is going to bring.”

Scott gave $4,158,500,000 during her second round of giving since signing The Giving Pledge.          In July, she gave $1.7 billion to 119 nonprofit groups.

According to a Forbes online article, Scott has published two novels and was a student of author Toni Morrison at Princeton. She is the ex-wife of Jeff Berzos. As part of their 2019 divorce settlement, he transferred 25 percent of his Amazon stake to Scott, four percent of the company. Shortly after, she signed the Giving Pledge.

According to a Sept. 2 online Fortune article, MacKenzie Scott is the wealthiest woman and 12th richest person in the world.

The Giving Pledge is a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving either during their lifetime or in their will.