How Did They Do That? San Antonio Nonprofits Talk About Their Surprise Gifts From Billionaire Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

Representatives of six San Antonio nonprofits shared insights about the multi-million-dollar gifts they received from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, and how the donations will transform the local landscape.

Their comments came during a July 28 non-profit empowerment webinar produced by fundraising trainer Jim Eskin, who asked local recipients to share their perspective on receiving a transformational gift. (To watch the entire conversation, click here)

Non-profits  participating in the webinar were: 

  • Lift Fund, which received a $10 million donation, was represented by Vice President of Community Relations & Development, Dan Yoxall. 
  • Palo Alto College’s donation is undisclosed; the college was represented by its president, Dr. Robert Garza.
  • San Antonio College, which received a $15 million donation, was represented by Director of Marketing & Strategic Communications, Kenneth Slavin.
  • San Antonio Food Bank’s donation amount is undisclosed. The Food Bank was represented by President and CEO, Eric Cooper.
  • United Way of San Antonio & Bexar County, which received $20 million, was represented by Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Directors, Kim Lubel.
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio, which received $40 million, was represented by Vice President, Development & Alumni Relations, Karl-Miller Lugo.

Since divorcing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2019, Scott has donated $9 billion to 798 non-profits across the country. Furthermore, these donations are unrestricted, meaning the nonprofits have the freedom to spend it for whatever purpose it chooses without strings attached. 

Eskin asked Garza how he found out about the gift, and how he reacted.  “I thought it was a phishing email, it actually went to my assistant five times, because there was no name, no address, no phone number, no logo, and it was somebody wanting to invest in our college,” Garza responded.

“It hit me on an emotional level,” said Garza. “I did not sleep for probably a good month. I was getting about 2 to 3 hours of sleep a night because it was just constantly going through my mind of what a significant impact this could have.”

Slavin said San Antonio College officials also thought they had received a phishing email. After finding out who and what exactly it was, “I was stunned -- he (College President Dr. Robert Vela, Jr.) was stunned,” said Slavin, “then it went to immediately being overjoyed.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval of District 7 attended the webinar and gave thanks to the non-profit leaders for their work to improve San Antonio. Sandoval said the gift came at a perfect time for the city. “In the 2018 census,” she said, “an American Community Survey came out and it indicated that out of the 25 major cities, ours had the highest poverty rate.”

Charlotte-Anne Lucas, the Executive Director of NOWCastSA, asked each representative what they thought they did right to receive the gift.

Yaxall of Lift Fund answered: “We have generational poverty in the city. If we can lift up small business families, then it’s transformative, it’s changing. And so, it was sticking to our mission and receiving a lot of visibility for that.”

Slavin from San Antonio College said: “I think it has been the single-minded dedication to helping so many people who might have not had the chance for college to do it. And I think it is the fact that we worked so closely with students. Student success is the number one goal here.”

Garza pointed to Palo Alto College’s data points of student success. “Our enrollment, our persistence rates, the number of hours students are leaving our institution... I think that’s something folks take notice of. Particularly in the community for which we serve.”

Cooper said media coverage is what helps organizations receive these types of grants. “But a story - when (Express-News photojournalist) William Luther took that photo at Traders Village on April 9, 2020 and captured the need of our city, it sent that message around the world, which prepared us all for these types of transformative gifts.” 

With the gift from the Scott, the San Antonio Food Bank was able to provide about 92 million pounds of food. “That’s equal to about 72 million meals,” said Cooper.

Lubel pointed to “the very founding of United Way in the first place. It was created to be a community convener of resources.” Lubel said the United Way plans to tackle the biggest issues in the community, such as generational poverty. 

UTSA representative Lugo believes that what his institution did right was focusing on student success. “We were Seal of Excelencia recipients.” he said. “If you look at other Hispanic institutions that have gotten money from Scott/Jewett, they were in many cases also Seal of Excelencia recipients.” He also said UTSA has lowered graduation rates from 5.3 years to 4.5 years and first year retention went up from 56% to nearly 78% in the last decade. 

Former Congressman Charlie Gonzalez congratulated the nonprofit leaders. “This wasn’t a grant program, this wasn’t a source where you knew about maybe submitting your application like we all do,” said Gonzalez. “You were chosen.”

Gonzalez quoted Scott who said she wanted to invest "in the change they are creating." Then he asked: "So what is your mission? How well are you performing your mission? And if you’re doing it right, these things will happen to you.”