The last thing Jessica Muroff expected about a year into her tenure as CEO of the United Way Suncoast was a call saying one of the world’s wealthiest women wanted to give her $20 million.
“My fraud flag was waving so high,” Muroff said. “I was like, ‘What do you mean somebody wants to give us $20 million and I can’t talk about it?’”
That confidentiality only lasted about a week before MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced in December that she was giving $4.2 billion in unrestricted grants to 384 organizations nationwide.
The goal, Scott wrote, was to give “organizations with high potential for impact” added resources to continue “helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day.”
Five groups based in Tampa Bay got a combined $38.5 million: The United Way Suncoast ($20 million), Manasota Goodwill ($10 milion), Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee ($4 million), Easterseals Southwest Florida ($3 million) and Meals on Wheels of Tampa ($1.5 million). The grants came with no restrictions and few requirements, such as a short report detailing how the money is being used.
Nine months later, those organizations haven’t fully outlined how those grants — in some cases their largest single donations ever — are being spent. But some are planning to soon. On Wednesday Muroff, Meals on Wheels of Tampa executive director Steve King and Goodwill Manasota CEO Bob Rosinsky and president Donn Githens will lead a free virtual summit specifically about Scott’s gifts and “the future of philanthropy.”
At a virtual presentation with other United Way Suncoast and community leaders earlier this month, Muroff only briefly alluded to the largest single donation in the organization’s history. Afterward, she demurred on discussing specific spending initiatives, but said the organization was close to announcing its plan with a promise of “radical transparency.”
“Every single penny of that gift is being put to use in our community,” Muroff said. “There are definitely ways that we could have just invested $20 million right back into the community immediately. But we wanted to make sure that we were doing this in strategic ways that would have a lasting impact for decades to come. Building the framework for that takes time.”
The United Way Suncoast formed a 14-member task force with members from all five counties it serves to figure out how best to split the gift between existing and new initiatives. Among the areas of need the group sees as particularly immediate are early learning and housing insecurity, although Muroff said they didn’t want to replicate or duplicate efforts the government had already undertaken, particularly as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re still in an acute situation in our community and our region and our nation that we need to address,” she said. “Some things that are really big and bold and transforming communities, we want to tackle with these dollars. And then really strengthening our organization so that we can continue to deliver on all of that for the next decade.”
Organizations that got less were able to spend their gifts more nimbly. For Meals on Wheels of Tampa, a mostly volunteer organization with a $4 million annual budget, the impact was immense and immediate. The gift made it possible to expand for the first time into Riverview and Gibsonton; add new seasonal, cultural and medically tailored menu items; and accelerate operations in a recently opened kitchen.
“In many ways, it freed us up to enlarge our mission at a time when finances were kind of tough,” King said. “It allows us to do several expansions that we knew would come someday; we just didn’t know it would come this fast.”
Easterseals Southwest Florida was also able to spend some of its gift relatively quickly. The group was in the middle of capital planning when its $3 million came in, and immediately directed some of it toward expanding programs and facilities at its Autism Center of Excellence, serving people with disabilities in Sarasota. The group added psychologists and diagnostic capabilities and expanded an equine therapy program.
“We’ve cut the waiting time down for a child to be diagnosed with autism significantly,” CEO Tom Waters said. “It saves them from having to go up to All Children’s.”
The biggest benefit, Waters said, was being able to leverage the grant into additional funding. He estimates at least $500,000 has come in as a direct result of Scott’s call for others to support her chosen beneficiaries.
“The beauty is that it’s the kind of gift that has longevity,” he said. “That’s how it was designed: make strategic impact in the short term, and then build out the long-term impact.”
The sudden, unexpected nature of the gifts generally caught organizations by surprise. Easterseals South Florida, a Miami chapter that got $6 million, was going through a leadership transition at the time, said spokesperson Roxanne Vogel. Only after a new CEO came on board in April did the organization start developing a strategic spending plan, with the goal of finalizing it later this year. Until then, it’s sitting in an investment portfolio.
Manasota Goodwill and Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee have offered few new specifics about their spending plans. When the grants were announced, Manasota Goodwill indicated it would allocate some resources toward programs for job seekers and equitable hiring, while Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee said it would accelerate capital projects that began in 2019. When asked about the grants this month, representatives from the groups had no updates.
However they’re used, the gifts should have an impact on each group’s long-term goals for years to come.
“Twenty million is life-changing, for sure, and it is an incredible gift,” Muroff said. “But when you think about the size of our region and the seriousness and depth of our community issues, it’s only a drop in the bucket. Her generosity is enabling us to go deep in some specific areas, and I think strengthen and garner further support in investment in creating change. So we’re grateful for that.”