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Amazon founder's ex-wife gives $10M to Fargo-Moorhead YMCA. Here's how they plan to spend it.

The unprecedented, unsolicited gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott will pay for a variety of initiatives at the YMCA of Cass & Clay Counties, including a new child learning and day care center as well as summer camp scholarships.

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Youngsters play at the Schlossman YMCA in south Fargo on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Part of a $10 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has gone toward buying land near Scheels Arena for a new child care and learning center for 250 children.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — The first email informing Steve Smith that the YMCA of Cass & Clay Counties had been selected to receive a large gift sounded like a scam, so the nonprofit group's president quickly deleted it.

Then a second email arrived, again informing Smith of the large gift, and once again he deleted what he thought was a pitch from a persistent scam artist.

A third email arrived, this time with the name of a contact in San Francisco, so Smith texted a colleague with a YMCA in the Bay Area to see if he knew anything about the person.

The response, which came back promptly: the person contacting him was a representative for MacKenzie Scott, a philanthropist and novelist.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know who Ms. Scott is,” Smith replied.

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“You might know her as the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos,” he was told. That would be Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon. Scott has pledged to give away her personal fortune.

So a less skeptical Smith called Scott’s representative at the National Philanthropic Trust in San Francisco, and received astonishing news: “She’s decided to give you $10 million.”

Smith wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.

“I said, ‘Excuse me … what?’” when told the money came with no requirements.

“She trusts that you will use the money well,” Scott’s representative told Smith, then asked if he had any questions. “I was a little speechless,” Smith said.

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MacKenzie Scott is seen at the Vanity Fair Oscars Party in Beverly Hills, California, March 4, 2018.
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Days later, in early December of 2021, the $10 million was deposited electronically in the YMCA’s bank account.

Now, after months of deliberation, Smith and other YMCA leaders are prepared to announce how they intend to invest the unprecedented gift — which amounts to almost half of the local Y’s $22 million annual budget.

Immediate suggestions ranged the gamut, from “spending every cent” to investing the entire gift as a general endowment that would appreciate over time “and everything in between,” Smith said.

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The board wanted to take the time to properly consider a wide range of possibilities, said Julie Blehm, who was president at the time the donation was received and remains a board member.

“We just want to be able to say we’ve thought very carefully about this,” she said. “We’ve been trying to discuss how we’re truly honoring the gift.”

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Part of a $10 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has gone toward buying land north of Scheels Arena in south Fargo for a new child care and learning center for 250 children.
David Samson/The Forum

Smith and others at the YMCA of Cass & Clay Counties can only guess as to why they were among the 40-plus YMCAs among 800 in the country to receive donations from Scott, who had reportedly given away $12 billion to more than 1,200 charities as of March, with $4.2 billion going to YMCAs.

“We don’t know,” Smith said. “It’s all a mystery. We’re just thankful. Incredibly thankful.”

As for the gift's impact, Smith called it "transformational," and said: "It allows us to double down on the work we do well. It gives us space to breathe. It gives us space to dream and think."

Apparently Scott’s organization contacted national YMCA officials and requested the financial disclosure documents all nonprofits must file with the IRS, reviewed them, and decided which to give money, Smith said.

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Youngsters play at the Schlossman YMCA in south Fargo on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

The $10 million gift is by far the largest in the metro YMCA’s history since its establishment in 1886 to serve workers on the Great Northern Railroad. By comparison, a capital campaign in 2015-16 raised $3.6 million to build its new aquatics center.

The largest share so far of the Scott gift has gone to purchasing 4.2 acres of land behind Scheels Arena, 5225 31st Ave. S., for a child care and learning center for 250 children, twice the capacity of its current learning centers. The YMCA will raise money for the center, which Smith expects will have a price tag of $8 million to $9 million.

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The YMCA is North Dakota’s largest day care provider. Before the pandemic, it provided day care for about 2,400 kids at 30 sites, a number that has dropped recently to about 1,900, due to staffing shortages.

“We, like everyone, are struggling to fill spots,” Smith said. “It’s two-thirds of our business,” he said of day care. “It’s huge.”

Children receiving day care services at the YMCA engage in learning activities and physical activities. “Kids don’t just come and sit,” Blehm said. “They have all sorts of learning activities.”

The YMCA has five learning centers in Fargo-Moorhead, with the Scott gift enabling an additional center.

Expanded day care capacity continues to be a pressing need in the community, Smith said.

“Child care is about workforce development, workforce development can’t happen without child care,” he said. “There’s a high need, there’s a high cost.”

The YMCA provides scholarships to help needy children attend day care as well as summer camp — another part of the nonprofit’s mission that will be helped by Scott’s $10 million donation.

To pay for an endowment to pay for scholarships to enable children to attend summer camp and to pay for capital improvements, $500,000 of the gift has been set aside. Between 30% and 35% of children who attend summer camp at YMCA Camp Cormorant have scholarship assistance, Smith said.

“This will be a lifeline,” he said.

Another $1 million is earmarked for a program innovation fund to develop new programs. “We’re teaching our staff to be innovative through a process,” Smith said. The need for innovation is even greater as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“We have to think differently about how we go about programming,” Smith said. Before the pandemic, the YMCA had discussed the possibility of online memberships and virtual fitness — an option that was rolled out nationally as YMCA360 after the coronavirus struck early in 2020.

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Erika Calkins plays with youngsters at the Schlossman YMCA in south Fargo on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Staff members have been working on proposals that will be vetted by a screening committee, including former board members, “kind of a Shark Tank thing,” Smith said, referring to the reality TV show for entrepreneurs to make their pitches.

“I actually don’t know what they’re working on,” Smith said. “I’ve stayed out of it,” in part because he’ll be voting on the proposal when it's presented.

One group is working on ideas to help bring new Americans into the workforce, including at the YMCA.

The $1 million endowment will enable annual investments of $40,000 to $50,000 to pay for the proposal for innovative programming.

Another $1.5 million will establish an endowment for “mission-based programming,” an effort that will be directed by a new mission advancement director.

Besides its signature fitness and activity centers, its camp and its child learning centers, the YMCA also is heavily involved in food programs. Last fall the local YMCA distributed 350,000 pounds of food in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Y also provides senior meals in partnership with Valley Senior Services, a program of the Fargo Park District.

The YMCA’s three pillars — youth development, healthy living and social responsibility — are “guideposts” that drive the organization’s programming, Smith said.

“This is about us strengthening the community,” he said. “We’re closer to a church than a fitness center. Our pews just happen to be treadmills.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
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