When Michelle Ramos, executive director of Alternate ROOTS found out the nonprofit arts and social justice organization had received a donation from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, she had one immediate reaction. “Tears,” Ramos said. “I literally broke down into tears. I’m still kind of wrapping my head around it.”
In her third donation cycle in less than a year, Scott announced last month gifts of $2.7 billion to 286 community-centered organizations, including four with roots in Atlanta. The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund and Souls Grown Deep each received $2 million. Alternate ROOTS and the Atlanta Music Project haven’t disclosed what they received.
Scott, an author and the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has made quite an impact in the philanthropy world. In 2019, she signed the Giving Pledge, making a commitment to donate a majority of her wealth through philanthropy, and she hasn’t stopped giving since. According to Forbes, in 2020 alone Scott donated $6 billion to 500 nonprofits.
In a Medium post regarding her most recent donation, Scott said she and her team, including husband Dan Jewett, spent the beginning of 2021 identifying and evaluating nonprofits working in neglected areas, with the result being gifts to organizations whose work and community is “historically underfunded and overlooked.”
She did not disclose the amounts given to each organization but said, “We chose to make relatively large gifts to the organizations, both to enable their work and as a signal of trust and encouragement.”
The donations are unique in their lack of stipulations about how the money should be spent. “Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encourage them to spend it however they choose,” Scott wrote.
Very rarely is money given to nonprofits without any requirements, Ramos said. Nonprofits lucky enough to get funding often find themselves chasing money through projects instead of investing in what the organization truly needs to help it grow. “This donation shows and reflects that philanthropy can trust the people who have been doing this work for years and years to do it without all the strings attached,” Ramos said.
She described the donation as “super, super impactful” and said it alleviates stress about funding. “There is this sort of release of pressure, like, ‘OK, we’re going to be OK for a little bit, so maybe let’s start dreaming and visioning.’”
For Atlanta Music Project CEO and cofounder Dantes Rameau, receiving Scott’s gift prompted two overwhelming emotions for him and his colleagues. “We were extremely relieved, because doing the work that we do, it’s a constant struggle between wanting to meet our mission and having enough money to meet our mission,” Rameau said. “We’re also very, very grateful that Ms. Scott and Mr. Jewett recognized the talent of our students and their ambitions.”
The Atlanta Music Project’s mission is to provide intensive, tuition-free music education for underserved youth. Currently, the program serves 300 students, providing each with an instrument, classes and performance opportunities. Given the program’s ambitions, tough decisions have always had to be made about finances. Rameau called the donation “transformative” and said the dreams the organization often has to put on a back burner now have a chance to come true.
Earlier this year, the project received $50,000 from the Lewis Prize for Music. The philanthropic organization was created in 2018 by arts patron Daniel R. Lewis to offer long-term and single-year support to creative youth development programs in marginalized and under-resourced communities.
One major impact of Scott’s donation is the recognition it gives Atlanta arts organizations, according to Katrina DeBerry, program officer for the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund’s Thriving Communities program.
“The donation really provides the potential opportunity for Atlanta’s arts-and-culture community to be highlighted and uplifted nationally,” DeBerry said. “The acknowledgement that we do have a robust arts-and-culture community that should be supported is an exciting opportunity for future conversations.”
The arts fund, a nonprofit that provides critical funding for small- and medium-sized arts organizations, is in the midst of conversations about how to improve racial equity in the way it allocates resources, said Frank Fernandez, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which oversees the arts grant program. Scott’s gift will help the foundation continue to support arts organizations while increasing the number of minority arts groups that receive money.
Souls Grown Deep — a foundation and community partnership dedicated to promoting work by Black artists in the South while fostering economic and social justice — has a similar plan for how the unexpected gift will be used.
“We’re so grateful for this exceptionally generous gift to expand our work and fostering economic empowerment and racial and social justice in these artists’ communities,” Maxwell Anderson, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “We also hope Scott’s gift will encourage other donors to recognize the unique value of arts organizations like Souls Grown Deep that are making a difference by directly supporting artists and communities that have been historically overlooked.”
DeBerry said donations to the arts fund and the individual organizations will help boost the arts community. “I’m hoping that this support enables the arts-and-culture community to continue to dream big and build on all their passions for their work,” she said. “Artists are led by their passions. You don’t want money to hinder their ability to do big, amazing things.”