Wow. A $9 million gift and she doesn’t even know us.

The “she” is philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. The $9 million gift is to the Vermont Foodbank. The money comes up front. No strings attached.

Merry Christmas to the many who depend on the food bank for their sustenance. The timing could not be better.

Ms. Scott is the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and one of the world’s richest people, with an estimated wealth that ranges anywhere from $36 to $60 billion. What makes her different is that she has pledged to give most of her wealth away during her lifetime. Rather than invest the money and have it bequeathed upon her death, she believes it should be given away quickly. She’s given away $4.1 billion in the last six months.

In a blog post she explains the process she and her advisers used to decide which organizations and which causes to support. She wrote: “This year of giving began with exposure to leaders from historically marginalized groups fighting inequities, and ended with exposure to thousands of organizations working to alleviate suffering for those hardest hit by the pandemic.”

The Vermont Foodbank, led by CEO John Sayles, qualified. It was one of 384 organizations that received a gift from Ms. Scott.

The $9 million is the equivalent of the organization’s budget for an entire year, something the organization has never experienced.

Rather than view the donation as a convenient means to expand current offerings, Mr. Sayles said, “If we thought about this gift as just replacing funds that we would otherwise raise that would be a real loss for people in Vermont. I think we should think about this in transformational ways.”

He’s right. He’s also got the leadership skills to accomplish what he intends.

Hunger in Vermont is a $120 million a year problem. The vast majority of that is addressed with federal food assistance programs. The opportunity Mr. Sayles wants to address is how Ms. Scott’s $9 million gift can be used to identify long term changes, changes that address core issues, which, in the main, concern the inequity of opportunity. The task is to figure out how best to raise all boats so that $120 million need is reduced.

The first responsibility is to deal with the Vermonters who need help today. It’s an extraordinary time and is likely to get worse before it gets better. When the vaccines finally reach us all and things return to something that resembles normalcy, Mr. Sayles and his partners can begin to think about the future and how Ms. Scott’s generosity can be leveraged to maximize the opportunities.

Those opportunities might include help for farmers markets, or food-related education or research. There might be ways to engage the research and development arms of Vermont’s higher education institutions. It might involve connecting Vermont’s communities into cooperatives that figure out ways to address hunger and inequity as communities.

That’s the power of Ms. Scott’s gift to Vermont Foodbank: In the end, it’s the gift of hope, which is a gift to us all.

by Emerson Lynn

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