On December 23, 2020

Billionaire MacKenzie Scott gifts Vermont Foodbank $9 million, largest donation in its history

By Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Cars line up as free food is given away at a distribution point run by the Vermont National Guard, the Vermont Foodbank and Vermont Emergency Management earlier this year. The need remains high statewide.

By Ellie French/VTDigger

The Vermont Foodbank has received its largest ever donation, from MacKenzie Scott, the philanthropist ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The $9 million donation is part of a $4.2 billion burst of donations Scott announced this week in a post on Medium called “384 ways to help,” referencing the 384 organizations she’s donating to in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

The foodbank is the only Vermont organization on the list.

John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank said he received an email on Dec. 3 from a philanthropic advisor who said their client was interested in making a donation. Shortly thereafter, Sayles talked to the advisor on the phone, and found out who was making the donation, and how much it was for.

“And then I just spent about a day in shock,” Sayles said.

The gift is “exponentially” bigger than any other the nonprofit has received, Sayles said. It’s about the same amount as their annual operating budget.

The Vermont Foodbank is the biggest anti-hunger organization in the state. The foodbank collects donations from producers and retailers, and distributes food to 300 food shelves, senior centers, schools and hospitals statewide.

“We’re always trying to think big, think about questions like ‘What would we do if we got a $10 million gift,’ so we did have some thoughts about it,” Sayles said. “But still, it’s a big responsibility.”

Pre-pandemic, one in 10 Vermonters was considered food insecure. Once Covid hit, that number surged to one in three, and is now at one in four. Sayles said he thinks the numbers are even greater and believes the Vermont Foodbank is currently feeding, through one program or another, about a third of Vermonters.

Sayles said they’ll likely spend the money trying to combat the “last mile problem” — making food as accessible as possible to people who need it most, and might have trouble accessing it, because of barriers in transportation or work schedules.

“We’re not like a grocery store that’s open seven days a week 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We need to be able to get people the food they want and need where and when they need it,” he said.

He said home delivery, order ahead, and keeping more food shelves open more frequently are some of the things they’re thinking about to solve that problem.

“These funds will help us scale up some pilots and partnerships and hopefully find something that can make a longer term difference,” he said.

Another big area the money will likely go towards, Sayles said, is trying to target root causes of food insecurity: poverty, systemic oppression, racism.

He said it’s “a little daunting” to have been the only Vermont organization selected to receive the funds, especially knowing so many others could use financial help. And more importantly, he said, it’s a problem when a donation from a billionaire is how a third of Vermonters are getting fed.

“I will never miss an opportunity to say this: The charitable food network cannot be the solution to hunger,” Sayles said. “We’re an imperfect vehicle at best.”

He said the biggest and best program, 3SquaresVT, needs to grow exponentially, so families can use money on an EBT card to buy food at the time and place that works for them, without having to wait in line for food distributions.

Scott said the organizations that received money were determined by a data-driven approach that identified groups with “strong leadership teams and results,” paying particular attention to those in communities with high rates of food insecurity, racial inequality, poverty, and low access to philanthropic capital.

As part of Scott’s divorce last year from Bezos, she received 4% of the outstanding shares in Amazon, then worth $38.4 billion. Now, with Amazon stocks surging, the sum is worth upwards of $60 billion.

Scott is currently the third-richest woman in the world — though in 2019, she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away most of her fortune in her lifetime.

Scott’s blog post said that in determining the size of the gifts, her team talked with nonprofit leaders and local experts to determine community needs, program outcomes, and each organization’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of funding.

“I think we could probably do more, frankly,” Sayles said. “I hope this inspires other people who are thinking about where a gift would make sense to say ‘Hey, a billionaire thinks this organization has the capacity to handle this money and do some good, maybe we can add to that’.”

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