When a billionaire surprises you with $8 million, no strings attached


MacKenzie Scott at a red carpet event in Beverly Hills, California, in 2018.

MacKenzie Scott, a new power player among the nation’s leading philanthropists, has been chipping away at her fortune over the course of the pandemic. Scott, who has been far more generous in her donations than her ex-husband, Jeff Bezos, had signed on to a pledge to give away a majority of her wealth—estimated at more than $50 billion—and has so far dispensed unusually large gifts with unusual alacrity and little of the red tape that usually comes with such donations. In particular, Scott has homed in on organizations that deal with climate change, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, poverty, and racial justice. Some of her largest surprise gifts were directed at colleges and universities with largely Black and Indigenous student bodies that she said were “selected for transformative work.”

To find out what it’s like to receive such a significant, no-strings-attached infusion of cash, Slate spoke with Donna Brown, the president of Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, North Dakota. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: Can you tell me a bit about Turtle Mountain Community College?

Donna Brown: TMCC is one of the very first tribal colleges ever developed in the United States. We’ve been in existence for almost 50 years. What people were finding was that so many of our students would go away to college, even if it was within North Dakota, and they would come home after—if they lasted a year. They were away from their families, they were lonesome, they were in a different environment, not a lot of support. Our students were failing. And so some visionary leaders 50 years ago or so decided to start tribal colleges on our reservations. They’re there to serve the educational needs of tribal citizens and provide the workforce that is needed on the reservation. We have about 500 students at any given time. And about 95 percent of those are Native American, and the majority of those are Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

How did the donation come about?

When I first received an email, it just said, “There’s a donor who’s potentially interested in giving money to the college. Would you have time to have a conversation with me?” And that’s really all it said.

So it was kind of, Is this real? Is this fake? What’s the deal? But I did have a conversation with somebody doing some research for [Scott]. By the end of the conversation, she basically said that MacKenzie would be giving us $8 million.

What did you think when this woman mentioned the $8 million?

I happened to be driving at the time. I almost had to pull over the side of the road. My jaw dropped. The most we’d received prior to this was $300,000. So to get $8 million was mind-blowing. I didn’t know if it was real.

How did they identify you to place you on their list?

I asked that question directly. I said, “How did you select us?” She said, “I can’t tell you that.”

They had done a lot of research. She knew I was a very new president, for one thing. She said that MacKenzie was interested in women of color who were leaders and who were leading successful institutions. And so all of that combined, I guess, was what put us on the short list. And then, after a couple of interviews with her people, we were selected.

What did they ask about during that first interview?

What our vision was for the college. If we had any unmet needs that we could use a gift like that for. And of course we can, because we rely on mostly funding from the federal government and federal grants. Our tuition is very low, so we really don’t survive on tuition. We live in a very high-poverty area, so our graduates aren’t the kind of people that are going to have an extra million dollars in their back pocket to donate. We write for a lot of grants, but donations from individuals are few and far between.

How did it move forward from there?

We had a couple meetings after that, just mostly firming up some of their details. When I first got the phone call, I was sworn to secrecy. I couldn’t tell anybody where the donation was coming from until she announced it herself about a week after we received the gift. I couldn’t even tell my board members or my chief financial officer. I just told her what the amount was, and that I needed an account ready to accept a wire transfer. From the first phone call until the money was in the bank was a three-week period.

You mentioned that you are early in your tenure. Did this change how you think about the work ahead of you?

I only started my presidency in October. To get this gift just weeks after starting my presidency was life-changing for me. When I was applying for the position, I knew that we faced a lot of challenges to ensure that we could keep offering the programs we had. And so going into it, the biggest issue I thought I would have was budgetary problems. But this changed that, so I can be a lot more visionary.

How did you decide what to do with the money?

What I found really intriguing about this donation is that she said MacKenzie doesn’t want us to do something with the money to accomplish her goals. She wants us to fulfill our own mission, and in a way that we find appropriate, in the best way to serve our people.

So we have requested, from an accreditation agency, to offer our very first master’s-level program. We have a four-year program in teacher education, and we have educated hundreds of teachers by now. But we don’t have anything that would take teachers further than that. In order for some of our teachers to become principals and other administrators, they need a master’s degree. So we’re able to try to do things like that, that we couldn’t do that before because we couldn’t afford to hire as many faculty with Ph.D.s, because our salaries just weren’t competitive.

How else have you been using the funds?

We have invested a portion of it. [We are] constantly trying to meet our budget, and now we’ll always have some money there to meet it with inflation in mind. One thing that a lot of tribal colleges lack is any kind of endowments or investments. And so that’s certainly a big portion of what we’re doing with it. We’ll always have some money available to spend to expand in ways that our community needs, and know that three years from now, we’re not going to be broke again.

What needs does TMCC still have?

There’s a great need for cybersecurity and other IT programs. There’s also a great need for engineers. And we’ve outgrown our facilities. We’re looking at ways that we can expand.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?

What we do is we work a lot with our tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. And we work very closely with them to see what the needs are in our community. I have seen throughout my lifetime how education has changed our community in a really significant way. For example, when I was a kid, I can promise you that almost every teacher and every administrator was non-Indian. It was mostly white people coming onto the reservation to teach and to administer the schools. And now the schools are about 90 percent, if not 95 percent, Native. But when I was in school, the only Native people I saw were janitors and people that worked in the kitchen. And so education is really important to our community. And being able to provide the programs that are needed and fill those positions with Native people who understand where Native people come from, what their experiences are, what their challenges are, what their successes are—it’s so important.