The Austin Chronicle

A Surprise Gift Boosts Meals on Wheels

MacKenzie Scott offers an $8 million gift

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 8, 2021, News

How would you feel if your Secret Santa gave you $8 million? That's sort of how Meals on Wheels Central Texas feels now, after receiving a generous and unanticipated gift from MacKenzie Scott. The novelist and former wife of Amazon chieftain Jeff Bezos, whose post-divorce share of the fortune makes her the second-richest woman on the planet (worth about $60 billion), has embarked on an unprecedented philanthropic journey to give her money away as fast as she can, which will still take a while.

Her second wave of gifts, announced in mid-December, totals more than $4 billion and includes the local MOW award, which like all of Scott's donations was made without being asked. "All this was a surprise to us," says MOWCTX CEO Adam Hauser. "She does not have a foundation; you do not apply for a grant. She has a team of advisers who do extensive due diligence and decide [with her] who they want to give money to. It's incredibly humbling to be recognized."

Scott's latest round of donations, intended to accelerate relief and support for those suffering economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which, she acknowledges, has boosted her own fortunes and those of other billionaires) went to 384 agencies nationwide. These include some, but not all, Meals on Wheels affiliates, and other agencies working on the intersecting priorities of food security and support for seniors aging in place. According to her December post on Medium revealing the gifts (the only information she provides about her efforts), her team "took a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital."

Austin certainly meets some of those criteria, and MOWCTX's workload has been growing with the increasing needs created by the pandemic. "I think we are a somewhat unique Meals on Wheels agency," says Hauser, giving credit to the decades of service by leaders, donors, and volunteers since the organization was founded in 1972. "We of course have our signature meal program, but we offer lots of other holistic services [to] provide the best care for vulnerable seniors in our community." These include home repair, financial counseling, and other supports for lower-income older Austinites, a segment of the community that is both growing steadily and bearing the full brunt of the pandemic.

So how will $8 million in new funding – for an agency with an annual budget of just under $14 million – help MOWCTX best address the needs it sees? "Certainly, we want to serve more people; we want to expand our existing programs," Hauser says. But "we're going to sit down and really do some strategic planning now that we have this additional resource." Among the things he's considering are "innovative partnerships with health care payers and community-based providers" for services (such as those provided by the peer-to-peer health workers known in Latinx communities as promotoras) that "we think will produce really good, valuable health outcomes outside of the clinical setting." He also thinks MOW can "get more heavily involved in ... affordable access to technology for a low-wealth population," for telehealth services as well as to combat social isolation among Austin's seniors.

MOWCTX has an urgent need right now for volunteers, with 200 routes that need covering once daily in-home meal service resumes this year. Visit them online to learn more.

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