LANCASTER, Calif. — Billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott has donated $44 million to Friends of the Children, an Oregon teacher organization that supports children at risk of falling into the welfare system by connecting them with a longtime teacher.
The unrestricted gift announced Thursday provides $15 million to the organization’s national headquarters and $29 million in direct donations to the organization’s 12 chapters from Tampa Bay to Detroit and Los Angeles.
Terri Sorensen, CEO of Friends of the Children, said Scott sent a message through intermediaries about why she chose her organization.
“She said they were doing it because they really hoped more people would know about Friends of the Children,” Sorensen said, adding that she had been working with The Bridgespan Group as part of the vetting process for months before the amount was finally determined.
This reflects what Scott has often said about her giving, writing in a 2020 Medium post that she and her team are scrutinizing organizations in particular “to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts that are given with complete trust and without any conditions”.
“Because our research is data-driven and rigorous,” Scott wrote, “our donation process can be humane and gentle.”
Sorensen recalled the “surreal” moment in June when she learned of Scott’s gift. She was visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where cellphone service was limited and she had to drive to get a signal to answer the call.
“I was actually in a ditch when I found out,” she said.
Scott’s donation nearly doubles the organization’s total resources as the national network’s 2022 budget is $50 million. Founded in 1993, Friends of the Children pays a professional teacher to befriend and support children and their families for 12 years, beginning in kindergarten.
In the most recent year, 2020, federal figures are available for more than 631,000 children who have passed through the foster care system. Oftentimes, families who come into contact with foster families are dealing with some kind of trauma and for whatever reason can’t get support at a less critical time, said Sandra Gasco-Gonzalez, vice president of Annie E. Casey. Foundation, said.
The foundation has previously supported Friends of the Children, and Gasco-Gonzalez said she hopes one outcome of the charity’s support is to produce evidence and research so it can apply for evidence-based government funding.
“The ones that cover the whole family are the ones that really show promise,” she said.
Over the past eight years, the network has grown from five offices to 26 with the help of a $4 million grant in 2016 from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a U.S. government agency. This grant was intended to help the organization expand its program and explore the impact it has had on children living in poverty.
The departments plan to use Scott’s donations to pay higher salaries to teachers they call “friends” and to expand to serve more children, Sorensen said, though she emphasized that each department operates independently.
National headquarters will add staff to increase the administrative support, such as grant writing and accounting, that they provide to chapters, and create an impact fund for chapters seeking grants.
Scott’s gift is the latest to be made public and extends her giving to other organizations that provide mentoring and support to children, such as Junior Achievement USA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
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Like nearly all of her more than $12 billion in donations since 2019, Scott’s donations to Friends of the Children have been unrestricted, and Sorensen said they intend to spend the funds over five years. Scott’s large gifts have caused other wealthy donors and foundations to evaluate their own giving strategies.
Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, are making the donation in relative secrecy. Individual donations, rather than through a foundation, mean that their donations only become known when recipients disclose them through his or her occasional blog posts. Previously, she wrote that she does not respond to press requests, so as not to overshadow the work of the organizations to which she donates.
Los Angeles, which has one of the largest numbers of children in foster care than anywhere in the country, is one of the Friends of the Children chapters that will receive the donated funds. The organization has two locations, including one that opened in 2019 in Antelope Valley, located about an hour north of the city. The unit received funding from the county’s mental health department to divert children who are at risk of being separated from their parents or guardians from foster care.
“We’re getting messages from there, parents and their caregivers, that not only do they have hopes and dreams for their kids, but they have their own hopes and dreams and they don’t feel so alone when they have a friend by their side. “, Sorensen said, referring to the teacher assigned to the family.
Their departments are now working with a number of local organizations to identify children most at risk of becoming involved in the welfare system and find them a long-term mentor.
“Perhaps, the parents were in foster families, did not finish school, sat down. Let’s get to those families before they get into the system and keep them out,” Sorensen said. “So that’s where we really want to be on the prevention side.”
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