FARGO — The first email notifying Steve Smith that the YMCA of Cass & Clay Counties had been selected for a big giveaway sounded like a scam, so the nonprofit group’s president quickly deleted it.
Then a second email arrived, again telling Smith about the big freebie, and once again he deleted what he thought was a pitch from a persistent scammer.
A third email arrived, this time with the name of a contact in San Francisco, so Smith texted a colleague at a YMCA in the Bay Area to see if he knew anything about the person.
The answer, which came back quickly: the person who contacted him was a representative of MacKenzie Scott, philanthropist and novelist.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who Ms. Scott is,” Smith replied.
“You might know her as Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife,” she was told. That would be Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon. Scott pledged to donate his personal fortune.
So a less skeptical Smith called Scott’s representative at the National Philanthropic Trust in San Francisco and received startling news: “She’s decided to give you $10 million.”
Smith wasn’t sure he had heard correctly.
“I said, ‘Excuse me…what?’ when I was told that the money had come without any requirements.
“She hopes you put the money to good use,” Scott’s rep told Smith, then asked if he had any questions. “I was kind of speechless,” Smith said.
A few days later, in early December 2021, the $10 million was electronically deposited into the YMCA’s bank account.
Now, after months of deliberation, Smith and other YMCA leaders are ready to announce how they intend to invest this unprecedented donation, which amounts to nearly half of the annual budget of $22 million. dollars from the local Y.
Immediate suggestions ranged from “spending every penny” to investing the entire donation as a general endowment that would appreciate over time “and everything else,” Smith said.
The council wanted to take the time to properly consider a wide range of possibilities, said Julie Blehm, who was chair when the gift was received and remains a council member.
“We just want to be able to say that we thought about it very carefully,” she said. “We tried to discuss how we really honor the gift.”
Smith and others at the YMCA of Cass & Clay Counties can only guess why they were among more than 40 of 800 YMCAs nationwide to receive donations from Scott, who reportedly gave $12 billion to more than 1,200 charities as of March, with $4.2 billion going to YMCAs.
“We don’t know,” Smith said. “Everything is a mystery. We are just grateful. Incredibly grateful.
As for the impact of the gift, Smith called it “transformational” and said, “It allows us to double the work we do well. It gives us space to breathe. It gives us space to dream and reflect.
Apparently, Scott’s organization contacted national YMCA officials and requested the financial disclosure documents that all nonprofits must file with the IRS, reviewed them, and decided who to donate to. money, Smith said.
The $10 million donation is by far the largest in the history of the Metro YMCA since it was established in 1886 to serve Great Northern Railroad workers. By comparison, a fundraising campaign in 2015-2016 raised $3.6 million to build its new aquatic center.
So far, the largest portion of Scott’s donation has gone towards the purchase of 4.2 acres of land behind Scheels Arena, 5225 31st Ave. S., for a daycare and learning center for 250 children, double the capacity of its current learning centers. The YMCA will raise funds for the center, which Smith says will cost between $8 million and $9 million.
The YMCA is North Dakota’s largest child care provider. Before the pandemic, it provided childcare for around 2,400 children at 30 sites, a number that has recently fallen to around 1,900, due to staffing shortages.
“We, like everyone else, are struggling to fill the spots,” Smith said. “It’s two-thirds of our business,” he said of the daycare. “It is enormous.”
Children who receive child care at the YMCA participate in learning and physical activities. “Kids don’t just come and sit,” Blehm said. “They have all kinds of learning activities.”
The YMCA has five learning centers in Fargo-Moorhead, with the Scott donation making it possible to open an additional center.
Increasing child care center capacity continues to be a pressing need in the community, Smith said.
“Childcare is about workforce development, workforce development cannot happen without childcare,” he said. “There is a high need, there is a high cost.”
The YMCA provides scholarships to help needy children attend daycare as well as summer camp — another part of the nonprofit’s mission that will be aided by Scott’s $10 million donation.
To pay for an endowment to pay for scholarships to allow children to attend summer camp and to pay for capital improvements, $500,000 of the donation was set aside. Between 30% and 35% of children who attend summer camp at YMCA Camp Cormorant receive a scholarship, Smith said.
“It will be a lifesaver,” he said.
Another $1 million is allocated to a program innovation fund to develop new programs. “We teach our people to innovate through a process,” Smith said. The need for innovation is even greater due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“We have to think differently about how we do programming,” Smith said. Prior to the pandemic, the YMCA had discussed the possibility of online memberships and virtual fitness — an option that was rolled out nationally as YMCA360 after the coronavirus hit in early 2020.
Staff members worked on proposals that will be reviewed by a selection committee, including former board members, “a kind of Shark Tank thing,” Smith said, referring to the show. reality TV allowing entrepreneurs to make their presentations.
“Actually, I don’t know what they’re working on,” Smith said. “I stayed out of it,” in part because he will vote on the proposal when it comes up.
A group is working on ideas to help bring new Americans into the workforce, including the YMCA.
The $1 million endowment will allow for annual investments of $40,000 to $50,000 to pay for the innovative programming proposal.
Another $1.5 million will establish an endowment for “mission-based programming,” an effort that will be led by a new director of mission advancement.
Along with its signature fitness and activity centers, camp, and children’s learning centers, the YMCA is also heavily involved in food programs. Last fall, the local YMCA distributed 350,000 pounds of food in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture. The Y also offers meals for seniors in partnership with Valley Senior Services, a Fargo Park District program.
The YMCA’s three pillars — youth development, healthy living and social responsibility — are “benchmarks” that guide the organization’s programming, Smith said.
“It’s about building community,” he said. “We are closer to a church than a fitness center. Our benches happen to be treadmills.