United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County unveils plans for $25 million MacKenzie Scott gift

By Lauren Anderson -Feb 9, 2021

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $25 million to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County when she gifted billions in donations to organizations across the country late last year.

United Way leaders unveiled on Tuesday their plans for the big gift, which will include bolstering the organization’s racial equity initiatives and Community Schools program and accelerating its multi-year campaign to end family homelessness in greater Milwaukee.

Scott, who is the former wife of Amazon.com chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, announced in December that she has given $4.2 billion to charity in the past four months. United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County was one of 46 United Way chapters, and one of 384 organizations nationally, to receive a donation.

Organization leaders revealed the donation amount and plans for the funds in a virtual announcement Tuesday.

United Way plans to create a racial equity portfolio that will house existing initiatives – including its work with Boys & Men of Color and Milwaukee Fellows – and new initiatives, such as providing general operating grants for Black- and brown-led organizations to increase their sustainability and capacity. Amy Lindner, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, said the goal is to “level the playing field” for organizations to help them gain access to more grants from funders like the United Way or government sources.

“We know that Black- and brown-led organizations have not historically had the same access to capital to allow them to build that kind of infrastructure,” Lindner said. “So, we think there is a place inside this portfolio for us to invest differently and specifically to do some capacity building with organizations – multi-year, general operating grants where they’re deciding where they most need that money.”

United Way also plans to direct funding to its Safe & Stable Homes initiative, which launched in 2019 with the goal of ending family homelessness in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties by 2025. Lindner now projects the organization will be able to achieve that target by 2023.

Funding will be available to United Way partners to address emergency rental assistance, utilities payments, arrears and other immediate needs.

“You would be shocked at how often it’s $100, $200, $400 that is the difference between someone being able to be safely housed or not,” Lindner said. “So, now is a really important time for us to be able to put some important investment in that space.”

Funding will also be available for the Eviction Defense Project, focusing on serving families with children under 18 years old, along with other high-risk populations, including those returning to the community after incarceration.

United Way also plans to expand its Community Schools initiative to three more schools. It currently partners with 12 Milwaukee Public Schools sites, where the organization provides support based on a school’s individual needs.

The organization is also in talks with Waukesha County school districts to transition existing partnering schools into a more formal Community Schools model.

“I think sometimes people continue to believe that what is needed east of 124th Street is wildly different than what’s needed west of 124th Street, or same thing if you go to the northern border of Milwaukee County and our work with Ozaukee and Washington counties,” Lindner said. “And sometimes it’s a little different degree, but it’s the same stuff. There are still mental health needs, there are still families who are struggling to make sure they have adequate food in their houses, there are still families who, for whatever reason, need a little bit of help.”

United Way also plans to focus on addressing the COVID-19 academic slide by partnering with education and youth development agencies to determine how to help students who have fallen behind due to the disruption this past year.

Scott’s gift comes on the heels of a strong fundraising year for the United Way. In December, the organization announced it had exceeded its 2020 campaign goal by $5 million, bringing in a total of $60.1 million.

Lindner stressed that, while major gifts like Scott’s are able to boost United Way’s work, donations of all sizes are what sustain the organization.

“Sometimes we see philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates and say ‘that’s so amazing that billionaires can do this,’ and full stop, yes, I agree,” she said. “But they’re not the only ones who can do this. Part of what I’m so proud of as we think about the ways we’re going to invest these dollars is, in large part, this is accelerating work we were already doing in our community. And that work has been made possible not by one incredible awesome donor but by tens of thousands of people across our region year after year.”