MacKenzie Scott gifts $5M to Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation


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First, it was a surprise. Then, a wave of excitement rolled over officials with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation a few weeks ago when they learned one of the nation’s most prominent philanthropists had turned her attention to their way.

MacKenzie Scott, a novelist and former spouse to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is donating $5 million to the foundation for its Every Child Thrives initiative, which focuses on supporting families and promoting early childhood education.

Kathi Cauley, director of human services for Jefferson County and chairperson of the Every Child Thrives Leadership Council, said the seven-figure donation sent shockwaves through the community when it was announced during an Early Child Thrives retreat she attended this fall.

“I mean, literally, everyone’s mouth was kind of open,” Cauley said. “How did MacKenzie Scott ever find us? And after that initial kind of shock and awe, we were quickly rather jubilant. I mean, Jefferson County is around 85,000 people. So this doesn’t happen here.”

The foundation was created in 2015. It partners with organizations like school districts, health departments, childcare centers and healthcare organizations to support families, kindergarten readiness and school success in Dodge and Jefferson counties in southern Wisconsin.

Scott is among the wealthiest billionaires to have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate the majority of her fortune to charity work. In March this year, she announced plans to grant nearly $4 billion to more than 400 organizations. About 60 percent of the money will go to women-led organizations.

On the same day the Watertown group announced their gift, Scott also donated nearly $85 million to the Girls Scouts of the USA and its 29 local branches.

“It was quite emotional,” said Carol Quest, a foundation board member, health officer and director of Watertown Department of Public Health. “I think everybody felt overwhelmed that we couldn’t imagine that we would receive this type of recognition for the work that we’re doing.” 

Tina Crave, the president and CEO of the foundation, said the gift gives its organizers and volunteers “renewed hope and optimism.” 

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Crave received a phone call last spring from a national nonprofit consulting firm representing an anonymous national donor. It wasn’t long before she heard back this fall about the “amazing gift.”

As a person in the public health sector, Quest said she’s always thinking about the larger community. 

“It is impactful if we could open up more spots or a new childcare center that would support our families,” she said. “I remember as a young parent, that was probably the most stressful thing that I endured, making sure that my kids were in a safe place so that when I was at work, I could focus on my responsibilities at work.” 

She said money will also go a long way toward helping those in underserved rural areas. 

“Resources are really limited in rural communities, and our leaders wear multiple hats and…we often have to take baby steps. And this is going to allow us to take some much bigger strides,” Crave said. The funds will also help expand its ongoing efforts to boost quality, early care education and access to workforce housing. 

The Foundation has invested more than $34 million in early education and social wellbeing initiatives. Some of that money has helped fund mental health therapists in schools in Jefferson County, for example.

“These dollars are going to allow us to be innovative and to pilot some new strategies to help create sustainable ways that families can access childcare and parents can work,” Crave said. 

The Early Child Thrives Initiative is not the first Wisconsin organization to benefit from Scott’s charity. Since 2020, she’s donated millions to state organizations including Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, United Way of Racine County, and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, among others.


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