The YMCA of the Capital Area works to strengthen the community with more than exercise. Its programs centered around healthy living, social responsibility and youth development drew the attention of philanthropist MacKenzie Scott when she searched for organizations around the country to support. “We’re going to stay focused on what the community’s needs are,” says YMCA of the Capital Area president and CEO Christian Engle. Photo by Callie Lipkin/Courtesy YMCA of the Capital Area

Checking in with three Baton Rouge nonprofits that received million-dollar donations during the pandemic

After signing the Giving Pledge in 2019 and promising to give away most of her wealth to charity, billionaire MacKenzie Scott began making headlines by donating large amounts to nonprofits around the country, including here in Baton Rouge. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

In 2020, author, billionaire and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott—previously known best for being Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife—made it her mission to support the needs of underrepresented people all over the world. Over the last few years, she has donated more than $14 billion to nonprofits. Scott and her team looked far and wide, assessing which nonprofits had a strong history of helping those in need.

Unbeknownst to the Capital City, Scott’s team had its eye on a handful of Baton Rouge nonprofits. During the uncertain time of the pandemic, Scott’s team donated $9 million in unrestricted funds to local nonprofits in Baton Rouge including Capital Area United Way, YWCA Greater Baton Rouge and YMCA of the Capital Area. We checked in with the selected nonprofits to learn what these noteworthy donations meant to the organizations, how they’ve used the funds and what their plans are for the future.

Capital Area United Way president and CEO George Bell. Photo by Collin Richie

Capital Area United Way

When Capital Area United Way president and CEO George Bell received a call that someone wanted to make a $5 million donation to his organization, he first thought it was a scam. In a brief telephone call, the nonprofit’s financial possibilities were about to make a complete 180.

Bell was amazed that his organization could receive such a significant amount without applying for it. He was also honored that someone like Scott and her team recognized its work. And she certainly did. Just a couple weeks later, the local organization received the largest donation its leaders had ever seen. Bell was so taken aback he could have burst with joy.

“It was just like Christmas,” Bell says. “It gave us some much-needed breathing room, and it allowed us to accelerate some of the things we’ve been wanting to do.”

Capital Area United Way is a nonprofit whose impact is woven throughout the community. It works arm in arm with other nonprofits and groups helping the Baton Rouge area through programs and initiatives centered around education, income stability and healthy living.

With the generous 2020 donation, Capital Area United Way was able to pour into its own organization and into the community. The organization did a series of fresh produce distributions with local partners and gave out gas cards and grocery store coupons to those who needed assistance during the pandemic.

CAUW also gave raises to some of its deserving staff members, replaced old computers with laptops to make it easier for its team to work efficiently from home, invested in its upcoming centennial fundraising campaign, and created grant opportunities for local nonprofits.

“Immediately this donation meant stability,” Bell says. “We now have the ability to plug some holes and generate revenue. It also meant that we could continue to fund certain nonprofits.”

In 2022, CAUW provided funding for more than 41 local organizations and groups including Big Buddy Program, Habitat for Humanity, Kids’ Orchestra, 100 Black Men of Metropolitan Baton Rouge, Epilepsy Alliance Louisiana, The Life of a Single Mom and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge.

The organization still has 60% of Scott’s donation to use—and it has big plans. For its 100-year anniversary in 2025, it plans to launch its largest fundraising campaign yet, aiming for $10 million in donations. Bell says the organization plans to do a soft campaign launch in 2023.

“It’s important that we leave a legacy and a blueprint for our organization so that we can create the foundation for the next five to ten years of United Way being a major catalyst for this community.”

YWCA Greater Baton Rouge CEO Dianna Payton. Photo by Collin Richie

YWCA Greater Baton Rouge

Dianna Payton, CEO of YWCA Greater Baton Rouge, was sitting in her car about to go into a meeting when she received a call from Scott’s team saying they wanted to donate $2 million to YWCA.

Initially, she thought it was a prank call or a hacker until they assured her it was legitimate. She was shocked. Payton and her team did some research, followed up with the person who reached out to them, and in a matter of days the funds were in the organization’s account. Just like that, a weight was lifted off of their shoulders.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” Payton says. “It was a relief. This gave us an opportunity for some of the visionary work and strategic initiatives to start and launch. This gave us a nest egg and investment tool to expand our reach and build sustainability.”

The YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice and freedom for everyone. The organization has showcased its dedication to the mission by holding its first Stand Against Racism event in 2022, offering Racism 101 training for businesses, supporting the homeless, and providing emergency assistance for working people, women and mothers. The group has also helped to pay bail for local nonviolent, unconvicted arrested people, as well as to support them after jail.

Since receiving the $2 million donation, the YWCA is able to make an even bigger impact.

A large portion of the funds are being used to purchase and develop a new facility. The YWCA plans to have a one-stop shop for women that is slated to open in spring 2023. “When a woman walks in the door, she’ll have everything she needs, from childcare to workforce needs, mental health counseling and trauma assistance,” Payton says.

The facility will include an Early Head Start program for children, homeless prevention services, workforce training, and patient rooms for women and children to get connected to domestic abuse, mental health and other holistic services.

YWCA is also using the funds to help provide housing for domestic abuse survivors. The team is in the process of building apartments that are fully furnished so when a woman arrives, she doesn’t have to worry about starting completely over. They are creating decorated and thoughtful homes to help the survivors feel safe and supported.

With the rest of its donation, YWCA plans to build more affordable housing and get more women and children off of the street and out of abusive environments.

Photo by Callie Lipkin/Courtesy YMCA of the Capital Area

YMCA of the Capital Area

Courtesy Christian Engle

During the pandemic, the YMCA of the Capital Area was a trustworthy place for essential workers to drop off their children to attend school virtually. The organization set up separate Wi-Fi systems for students to use for free, helped the students log in to their sites, and supported them with schoolwork. The YMCA was there for children and families with hopes of providing a smoother transition to virtual classes and their new pandemic lifestyle.

“We were doing a lot of work around food distribution and we became a home base for students to do their work virtually so Mom and Dad could get to work,” YMCA of the Capital Area president and CEO Christian Engle says. “We started that when the schools first closed.”

Those actions didn’t go unnoticed. The YMCA of the Capital Area was one of 43 YMCAs around the country that were selected to receive donations from Scott. The Baton Rouge organization was given $2 million to support its initiatives.

In 2020, the YMCA began developing a national strategic plan that included a focus on anti-racism, diversity and inclusion. With Scott’s considerable gift, the YMCA of the Capital Area hired staff to move the diversity and inclusion work forward and is partnering with organizations already making positive changes in the community, such as My Brother’s Keeper.

“The ability to be able to hire a staff person whose job is centered around diversity, equity and inclusion is a pretty powerful position to be in,” Engle says. “I’m excited to see what that will look like.”

While many of the plans for the YMCA’s funds are still in their development phase, the organization remains active and eager to serve the Baton Rouge area.

“We’re going to stay focused on what the community’s needs are,” Engle says. “The MacKenzie Scott funds helped us to be strategic in that effort.”