The Maine Health Access Foundation, an Augusta nonprofit, doesn’t try to drum up money from the public – let alone celebrity philanthropists.
So on a recent afternoon, when President and CEO Barbara Leonard got a call saying the organization would receive $9 million from MacKenzie Scott, the news was an out-of-the-blue, welcome, surprise.
“I was stounded and taken aback, and then so incredibly pleased for Maine,” Leonard said Friday. “That made for a very good day at the office.”
MeHAF, which says it is the state’s largest private nonprofit health care foundation, works to improve access to health care for Maine people, particularly 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 assisting Mainers in local communities.
Scott, an author who used to be married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has pledged to give away most of the fortune she received when the couple divorced three years ago. Her current net worth of $22.1 billion ranks Scott No. 61 among the world’s richest people, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Scott’s latest round of gifts, announced last week, totaled $2 billion and went to 343 nonprofits addressing social and economic needs. To date, she has donated more than $14 billion.
Leonard said the foundation didn’t know it was under consideration for a gift until it got the call and an email. Staff will start figuring out what to do with the money in January, she explained, when the funds are due to be transferred.
The foundation operates off an endowment – 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 issued a total of $4.3 million in grants to organizations for work in such areas as children’s oral health, elder care and school violence prevention. Expenses and disbursements 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 have 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 have said they didn’t realize they’d drawn the attention of the philanthropist or the advisers who vet candidates for her.
The staff at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn got a surprise call in November 2020.
“It’s so discreet,” said Erin Fogg, the organization’s vice president of development and communication. “It was, ‘Is this for real?’”
The food bank received $25 million, an amount that surpassed its annual budget.
“It’s a very large and transformational sum,” Fogg said.
Staff immediately began thinking about how to share the bounty and began by increasing grants to partner organizations. The food bank even launched an arm called “Harvesting Good” that will sell frozen vegetables, starting with Maine-grown broccoli, to increase food output and bolster the state’s agriculture economy.
Good Shepherd also set some of the money aside and will decide how to spend it over the next three to five years.
Fogg said Scott’s team is very hands-off once the money is transferred. All they ask, she said, is for three years of short annual reports describing how the money is used.
“It’s founded in 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 Access Foundation also will earn that trust when its money comes through in January. She declined to speculate on how it might be spent and said decisions will be made in consultation with the organization’s board, partner groups and others.
There are a multitude of issues affecting health care for Mainers, she said, and even with an unexpected $9 million, “we can’t address all of them.”
Other Maine groups that have received money from Scott are Coastal Enterprises Inc., a community development financial institution, which received $10 million in 2020; Goodwill of Northern New England, which got an undisclosed amount in 2020; the 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 got $1.5 million in 2021.
Minnesota poised to legalize cannabis early next year