When LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera heard the news of a massive gift to her organization on Tuesday, she burst into joyful tears.

Palo Alto College President Robert Garza, sure he had misheard, said he had to ask his assistant to repeat herself. Chris Martin, president and CEO of United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, said he was struck speechless.

These three organizations – LiftFund, United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, and Palo Alto College – are among the 384 organizations chosen by author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to receive millions of dollars in donations this holiday season. 

Scott, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, donated more than $4.1 billion over the past four months for pandemic relief to groups in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. Included in that sum is $10 million to local nonprofit small business lender LiftFund, $20 million to United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, and an undisclosed “eight-figure gift” to Palo Alto College. 

Other San Antonio organizations included on Scott’s list include the San Antonio Food Bank, YWCA San Antonio, Goodwill Industries of San Antonio, and Easterseals Rehabilitation Center of San Antonio.

“Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable,” Scott noted in a blog post on Medium. “Others are addressing long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis: debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups, and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination.”

Scott states she asked a team of advisors to help her accelerate her 2020 giving through immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the crisis. 

Of the 6,490 organizations she and her team looked at, they undertook deeper research on 822. Of those, 438 were put on hold due to insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams or to allow for further inquiry about specific issues such as treatment of community members or employees, Scott said. 

“These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day,” Scott wrote. “They help by delivering vital services, and also through the profound encouragement felt each time a person is seen, valued, and trusted by another human being.”

With an estimated one-third of the nation’s nonprofits unsure if they’ll survive the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Scott’s donations come at a crucial time, Barrera said. 

The donation is the largest in LiftFund’s 26-year history, Barrera said, adding that the locally headquartered nonprofit plans to use the funds to continue its work to help small minority- or woman-owned businesses weather the storm brought on by the pandemic. 

Over 80 percent of LiftFund’s clients are entrepreneurs of color, 40 percent are women, and 26 percent are startups, the organization stated in a press release. 

LiftFund provides funds, financial coaching, tools, and resources to entrepreneurs who do not have access to loans from commercial sources. Since its inception, LiftFund has provided over $372 million in capital, aiding more than 23,000 small businesses throughout its 14-state footprint.

“If I could speak with Ms. Scott, I would want to tell her that I will be praying for her every day,” Barrera tearfully told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday. 

The $10 million gift is a catalyst for LiftFund to “work smarter and collaborate with others to close the unmet demand of capital needs for small business,” said Ret. Major Gen. Jimmie O. Keenan, who chairs LiftFund’s board. 

Since March of this year, LiftFund has provided over $94 million in small business loans and grant relief, including $25 million in PPP loans, in partnership with governmental entities, financial institutions, foundations, corporate funders, and individual donors, the organization stated in a press release. 

“LiftFund will leverage these funds to increase opportunities that address the unmet demand for small business funding during this challenging time,” Barrera said. 

Scott’s $20 million donation also is the largest-ever private donation that’s been given to United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County in its 81-year history, United Way said in a press statement. 

The organization’s board of trustees and executive committee will oversee the investment of the $20 million donation to “help address long-standing economic, educational and social disparities in the San Antonio community,” United Way said in the statement. 

“It’s been a tough year on nonprofits,” Martin said. “What we’ve experienced are people leaning into the issues we face, leaning into the need to help one another. This [donation] doesn’t mean we don’t still need the support of every San Antonian. We do.”

United Way of San Antonio President and CEO Christopher Martin
Christopher Martin is the president and CEO of United Way of San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / United Way of San Antonio

The funding will go toward expanding United Way’s Dual Generation Partnership initiative to the city’s West Side, United Way said in its statement. The initiative currently aims to end generational poverty on the city’s East Side by addressing housing, education, child care, and unemployment issues. Existing partners include the Alamo Colleges, the City of San Antonio, Goodwill San Antonio, and San Antonio ISD. 

“We are so grateful for this incredibly generous gift. It is unparalleled for our United Way and for its ability to create transformational change,” said Kim Lubel, chair of the nonprofit’s board of trustees. 

As for Southside community college Palo Alto, the funds will be allocated to three areas of need: scholarships for students; programming to help students with basic needs such as food and housing; and Educate South, one of the college’s initiatives that will be formally announced in 2021, the college stated in a press statement.

Garza said 2020 has been an extremely difficult year for Palo Alto’s students, many of whom have been personally affected by the pandemic.

“Our students overall were taking [fewer] classes because they had to help family members who got sick or were dealing with the grief of losing loved ones, or their own family members had lost jobs and so they were picking up new jobs,” Garza said.

Garza said the college’s board plans to spread the funds out so they can be used “for years to come.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...