The Maine Health Care Access Foundation, a nonprofit in Augusta, doesn’t try to raise money from the public — let alone big-name philanthropists.
So on a recent afternoon, when President and CEO Barbara Leonard got the call that the organization would receive $9 million from Mackenzie Scott, the news came as an unexpected, welcome surprise.
“I was amazed and surprised and then so incredibly pleased for Maine,” Leonard said Friday. “It made for a very good day at the office.”
MeHAF, which says it is the state’s largest private nonprofit health foundation, works to improve access to health care for Maine people, especially those who are uninsured or who live in underserved parts of the state . But the work is often behind the scenes, providing grants and support to help strengthen organizations helping Mainers in their local communities.
Scott, a writer who was married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, pledged to give most of the fortune she received when the couple divorced three years ago. Her current net worth of $22.1 billion ranks Scott as the 61st richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Scott’s latest round of gifts, announced last week, totals $2 billion and goes to 343 nonprofits that address social and economic needs. To date, she has donated more than $14 billion.
Leonard said the foundation did not know it was under consideration for a gift until it received the call and email. Officials will begin figuring out what to do with the money in January, she explained, when the funds are due to be transferred.
The foundation operates on donations – which now stands at $118 million—created in 2000 when Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maine was sold to insurer Anthem Inc. Last year, the foundation awarded a total of $4.3 million in grants to organizations for work in areas such as children’s oral health, elder care and school violence prevention. Expenses and payments totaled $6.1 million.
‘IS THIS FOR REAL?’
The foundation is the only Maine-based recipient in the latest round of gifts. Five organizations in the state previously received funding from Scott, who after her divorce was briefly married to Dan Jewett, a 1994 graduate of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris.
Like Leonard, other recipients said they didn’t realize they had caught the attention of the philanthropist or the advisers who vet applicants for her.
The staff at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn received a surprising call in November 2020.
“It’s so discreet,” said Erin Fogg, the organization’s vice president of development and communications. “It was ‘Is this for real?’
The food bank received $25 million, an amount that exceeded its annual budget.
“This is a very large and transformative amount,” Fogg said.
Staff immediately began thinking about how to share the award and began by increasing grants to partner organizations. The food bank is even launching a division called “Harvesting Good” that will sell frozen vegetables, starting with Maine-grown broccoli, to increase food production and support the state’s agricultural economy.
Good Shepherd has also set aside some of the money and will decide how to spend it over the next three to five years.
Fogg said Scott’s team is very free once the money is transferred. All they want, she said, is three years of concise annual reports detailing how the money is being used.
“It’s based on a lot of trust,” Fogg said. “It’s a vote of confidence in our work and the work that’s happening across the state.”
Leonard said she hopes the Maine Health Care Foundation also earns that trust when the money comes in in January. She declined to speculate on how it might be spent and said decisions would be made in consultation with the organization’s board, peer groups and others.
There are multiple issues affecting health care for Mainers, she said, and even with the $9 million windfall, “we can’t handle them all.”
Other Maine groups that have received money from Scott include Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development financial institution that received $10 million in 2020; Goodwill of Northern New England, which received an undisclosed amount in 2020; Maine Community Foundation’s Expansion Arts Fund, which received $2.5 million in 2021; and 317 Community Center, a music education organization in Yarmouth, which received $1.5 million in 2021.