The Palomino Center at Palo Alto College.
The Palomino Center at Palo Alto College. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Palo Alto College President Robert Garza thought he had a bad phone connection when he heard MacKenzie Scott was donating $20 million to the community college.

“I’m sorry. I think we broke up,” he recalled saying to a member of Scott’s team. “I didn’t hear you correctly.”

Palo Alto College President Robert Garza.
Palo Alto College President Robert Garza. Credit: Courtesy / Palo Alto College

But he had. Palo Alto College was one of seven organizations in San Antonio and 384 in the country chosen by the billionaire philanthropist to receive millions of dollars in donations this year.

Scott, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife and an author, donated more than $4.1 billion over the past four months for pandemic relief to organizations in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. She gave $10 million to local nonprofit small-business lender LiftFund and $20 million to the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County.

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

The $20 million gift is not just unique because it’s the largest in the Alamo Colleges District’s 75-year history, said Sheila Marlow Due, Alamo Colleges Foundation executive director. It’s also unique because the donation came without solicitation or stipulations.

Marlow Due said people in the fundraising world call donations like these “bluebirds” because they come out of nowhere, like a bluebird unexpectedly flying into a window. What made Scott’s gift rarer still is that it came without restrictions.

Generally, when donors like Scott make large gifts they want the money tied to something significant to them, such as a particular program or scholarship fund, Marlow Due said. But Scott’s gift was an anomaly because she did not dictate where the funds must go, allowing Palo Alto’s leaders to decide where the money was needed the most.

“It’s not unheard of, but it’s not often,” she said of the unrestricted gift.

Aware of the fundraising challenges nonprofits face, Scott wrote in a blog post on Medium that she and her team carefully and diligently researched each of the 384 organizations she donated to not just to identify those with “high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached.”

“Not only are nonprofits chronically underfunded, they are also chronically diverted from their work by fundraising, and by burdensome reporting requirements that donors often place on them,” she wrote. “We shared each of our gift decisions with program leaders for the first time over the phone, and welcomed them to spend the funding on whatever they believe best serves their efforts.”

As a former community college student, Garza knows what services the more than 11,000 students attending his Southside institution need in their quests to succeed. His story is quite similar to theirs.

Many of Palo Alto’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Garza did not set foot on a college campus until two months before he graduated from high school, when his best friend asked him to go with him to new student orientation at Texas A&M University.

“I didn’t know places like that existed, and I was exposed to something I’d never been exposed to before,” he said.

Later, Garza attended Texas Southmost College in Brownsville for two years before transferring to Texas A&M, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He said the community college staff embraced him and helped him on his journey, which eventually led him to earn a master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.

That’s why about 80 percent of the $20 million will go into an endowment to fund programs that will help students, whether it’s tutoring, investing in student organizations, or creating programs for high-wage, high-demand fields like dental hygiene and nursing, Garza said. The rest of the funds will go toward the tuition-free Alamo Promise program; the college’s S.H.A.R.E Center that provides food, health care, and other basic needs for students; and the forthcoming Educate South initiative, which will launch in the spring and focus on building bridges between families with young children and the college.

Palo Alto already has been recognized as a leader among community colleges. The Aspen Institute last year honored the college with its Rising Star award, part of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, for its work in improving student success. It was one of five community colleges recognized by the Aspen Institute.

Garza said he hopes Scott’s gift encourages other people to contribute to and partner with Palo Alto so “this wave of opportunity will turn into a tsunami.”

“We need people to be excited about this transformational opportunity that MacKenzie Scott has given us,” he said, “but we also need the community and businesses and industry to rally around us because there’s so much more need.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.