United Way’s $20 million opportunity

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In early December, Jaime Saunders was asked to keep a secret. A member of venture philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s team told the president and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester that its work had been noticed.

That news translated into $20 million for United Way, announced in Scott’s blog on Dec.15.

“This is what nonprofits dream about,” Saunders says. “I am still in shock.”

Scott’s team examined 6,490 organizations and took a deeper dive into 822. Insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams and other issues put 438 on hold. The commitments began after Scott, who was once married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment made by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.

“We won’t always learn about a concern inside an organization, but when we do, we’ll take extra time to evaluate,” Scott wrote in the blog. “We’ll never eliminate every risk through our analysis, but we’ll eliminate many. Then we can select organizations to assist—and get out of their way.”

United Way and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes were two local organizations on the final list of 384 organizations. (The amount for Goodwill has not been disclosed yet—the gift is expected next month.)

United Way plans to establish a special task force of its board to define and leverage Scott’s donation. The plan is expected to recognize the community’s current needs with an eye toward investment in the future.

The organization intends to stick to its schedule with its 2021 fundraising campaign in January. The gift is not part of the campaign, which enables workplaces to give and United Way to fund more than 81 programs that support health, education and economic mobility.

The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Saunders to learn more. Her responses are below.

ROCHESTER BEACON:  Since receiving MacKenzie Scott’s gift, have you learned why she decided to donate to United Way of Greater Rochester?

JAIME SAUNDERS: “We know your work and believe in what you do,” the MacKenzie Scott representative shared with me one late night in early December. This is what all nonprofits dream about! I am still in shock. For the first few weeks I was not allowed to tell anyone—not staff, not board—as I was under strict confidentiality. We did not know when Ms. Scott would announce—so it was a flurry of activity and pure excitement when her blog came out with the news on Dec. 15. That made it real. 

Jaime Saunders

What is thrilling about MacKenzie Scott’s philosophy of giving is it removes the burden from the nonprofits doing the work. Her team of researchers have been quietly reviewing 6,490 organizations nationally and 384 of us made the final cut. They employed a data-driven approach, interviewed experts, and dug deep into each of our organizations. They knew everything. 

Once organizations are selected, Ms. Scott wrote in her blog, “we get out of the way.” This kind of “trust-based philanthropy” emanates from the belief that those in the field, with a proven track record, know their communities and will know what to do. Ms. Scott believes in giving significant gifts to be transformational. She knows nonprofits are chronically underfunded and must divert much time and energy to fundraising and reporting that could, and should, be spent on improving quality of services and impact. She upended all of this. I have never seen anything like it. We are so honored to have been chosen and proud that our longstanding partners, Goodwill of the Finger Lakes, also received a grant—such a win for Rochester!

ROCHESTER BEACON: This is an unrestricted grant. What does that mean in terms of United Way’s ability to disburse the funds? How many years does the grant cover?

SAUNDERS: The MacKenzie Scott grant is not part of our Annual Campaign. The grant is multi-year, and the goal is to “transform United Way and the community.” This is a tall order! It is not intended to be traditional grant-making such as supporting the vital programs the way our Annual Campaign does. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is for transformative work to help build toward a stronger future. We must challenge ourselves and our instinctual reactions to do what we have always done. If anything, MacKenzie Scott herself has clearly demonstrated new approaches are needed and are very powerful.  

ROCHESTER BEACON: You plan to create a task force to ensure the funds will be distributed appropriately. Specifically, what will the members of the task force be charged with?

SAUNDERS: We did not know about this tremendous gift until just a few weeks ago! Such an opportunity is also a tremendous responsibility. As the ultimate fiduciaries, our board of directors is establishing a task force to ensure that the grant is invested in ways that align with our mission and purpose. The board task force will initially focus on creating a path forward and a process which will include opportunities for input and engagement from a wide array of community partners. We will share updates as the process is established throughout 2021.   

ROCHESTER BEACON: What are the ways that these funds could have a large impact? In your opinion, where does our community need the most help?

SAUNDERS: As incredible as the one-time MacKenzie Scott grant is, our community collectively raises and distributes more than $20 million each year! Our United Way Campaign kicks off in January with our workplaces and individual giving. Our core nonprofit network is counting on all of us to help as they continue to experience dramatic increases in demand with far fewer resources.

The ravages of COVID-19 continue, and the economic reverberations will be far-reaching. Our agencies are reporting double, triple and quadruple increases as more and more people are turning for help to meet their basic needs—many for the very first time. We know 2021 will be very challenging. We have also seen throughout 2020 what our community is capable of when we come together focused on a common goal. It is vital that each of us step up as we can and be part of supporting this community, we call home. Each of us can make a difference. 

The MacKenzie Scott transformational grant complements this core daily community work by providing a rare opportunity to fully explore innovative methods to support the nonprofit sector, including supporting a system that allows them to work together in new and impactful ways, as we get through and beyond COVID. Given the deep challenges before us, it is not reasonable to simply ask providers to “do more with less”—we must reimagine how we work together in this new world with the ultimate goal to provide opportunities for every Rochestarian to thrive.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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