The world’s 18th richest person, Mackenzie Scott, has revealed that she is the “Secret Santa” responsible for a series of quiet donations to dozens of colleges around the US in the last four months.

Scott was formerly married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and accumulated much of her wealth through a $38 billion divorce settlement.

Her gifts to charity this year alone total nearly $6 billion, a fact just recently announced through a blog post on Medium. She pledged in another post last year to give away a majority of her wealth to worthy causes. 

Helping Hand for Struggling Institutions

Representatives of Scott spent weeks, sometimes months, in discrete conversations with college presidents, interviewing them about the mission of their institutions.

“The result over the last four months has been $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC,” her Medium post revealed.

Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college in Texas, received $50 million. Struck by disbelief, president Dr. Ruth Simmons initially thought she misheard and had the caller repeat the number. This is the biggest donation the university has received to date.

Some college presidents said that Scott has not placed any restrictions on how the funds are used, allowing university administration to decide how it could be distributed. Simmons revealed that she was allowed to start disbursing aid immediately to students affected by the pandemic.

The university is creating a $10 million Panther Success Grant Program for juniors and seniors struggling as a result of the pandemic. The rest will be allocated to the university’s endowment, raising it from $95 million to $130 million. It will be used to support faculty recruitment, undergraduate scholarships, and other enhancements for the university.

Simmons was asked to keep news about the gift confidential; however, she believed making it public would send an important message. She shared how, in her experience as president for big colleges such as Brown University, it was “quite routine to be in conversations with people about gifts of this size.”

“But it rarely happens in institutions like Prairie View, and it rarely happens especially for the kinds of students that we serve,” she explained.

Dr. Tony Munroe, president of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, revealed that there was no application process for the grant. The only involvement from his side happened when he was contacted by a representative of Scott, who engaged him in an in-depth discussion about the college’s mission.

The Borough of Manhattan is a predominantly Black and Hispanic institution based in Lower Manhattan. Munroe shared that part of the money would be used to set up a fund for programs, scholarships, research, and events for research and development on race and gender equity, economic mobility, and the impact of the coronavirus.

West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah was another recipient of Scott’s generosity, stating that it would use the $15 million it had received to help disadvantaged rural students and adults prepare to be a part of the labor force. This is the college’s largest donation from a single donor in its history.

The Secret Santa of Higher Ed

It is common for billionaire philanthropists to donate to Ivy League and elite private schools, especially if they have a personal connection. This is done in support of their passions, and brings prestige and recognition.

Scott’s donations to lesser-known institutions are likely to have a disproportionate impact on education during the pandemic. A donation of $10 million to institutions dedicated to underserved communities will no doubt enrich far more lives than an equivalent amount given to an elite college or university.

Scott has donated to more than a dozen historically Black colleges and universities as well as community and technical colleges serving Native Americans, women, urban, and rural students.