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Oct. 8, 2022, 3:31 p.m. EDT

MacKenzie Scott donates $20 million to California school district where 83% of students are considered low-income

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By Leslie Albrecht

Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has donated $20 million to public schools in a part of California where about one in five people lives in poverty.

“There’s 20 million reasons to be excited,” said Fresno Unified School District superintendent Bob Nelson as officials announced the donation, which will go to the Fresno Unified Education Foundation, the Fresno Bee first reported .

The foundation’s board will decide over the next several months how to deploy the money, but two ideas are already top of mind, Fresno Unified School district spokeswoman Nikki Henry told MarketWatch. One is to pay for college scholarships for high school seniors. Last year 300 seniors applied to the foundation for scholarships, but the foundation was only able to fund 70 of the applicants, Henry said. Scott’s donation will allow the foundation to “at least quadruple that amount,” she said.

The other idea at the top of the list is to create an investment strategy that will allow Scott’s donation to “regenerate itself in some way every year,” Henry said. “We know based on conservative estimates that we could generate potentially up to $800,000 per year in interest alone if we invested the total amount,” she added. “We likely won’t invest the entire $20 million, but it gives you an idea that we look to regenerate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year with the seed funding.”

Fresno Unified School District is California’s third largest, serving more than 70,000 students, 83% of whom are considered low-income, Henry said. Fresno is in California’s Central Valley, the farming area in the middle of the state where much of the United States’ food comes from. The county’s median income was $57,109 as of 2020, and an estimated 17.1% of people lived below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Prior to Scott’s gift, the largest single donation to the Fresno Unified Education Foundation was $30,000 donated by Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -1.61% , according to the Fresno Bee. Scott is the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Since their 2019 split, Scott has become one of the most closely watched and influential U.S. philanthropists, handing out more than $12 billion to nonprofits across the country.

Scott has focused much of her giving on grassroots groups working with marginalized communities. She has also given what are often described as “transformational” gifts to well-established national nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity ($436 million); Boys & Girls Clubs of America ($281 million); Planned Parenthood ($275 million); and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America ($123 million).

Scott is known for what’s called a “trust-based” approach to her giving, meaning that she donates money with no strings attached, and doesn’t tell the organization it must spend the money in a certain way.

“When our giving team focuses on any system in which people are struggling, we don’t assume that we, or any other single group, can know how to fix it,” Scott wrote in a March 2022 Medium post announcing her latest round of donations. “We don’t advocate for particular policies or reforms. Instead, we seek a portfolio of organizations that supports the ability of all people to participate in solutions. This means a focus on the needs of those whose voices have been underrepresented.” 

Read next: Sheryl Sandberg’s $3 million to aid ACLU fight for abortion rights: ‘This issue is the one where we have taken the biggest single step backwards’

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