For about a month, Pat Airy had to keep a big secret — one worth $10 million. She couldn’t even tell her family or co-workers.
That secret turned out to be the largest donation received in the 55-year history of Iowa City-based Goodwill of the Heartland.
Mackenzie Scott, a novelist and philanthropist formerly married to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, wrote the $10 million check to Goodwill of the Heartland in December as part of her $4.2 billion in giving to 384 not-for-profit organizations nationwide.
“What an incredible gift,” said Airy, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill of the Heartland. “It really comes at a critical time when so many Americans are unemployed and urgently need help finding their next jobs.”
Airy said the donation will allow Goodwill to expand its services to more people in its 19-county region, which spans from the Cedar Rapids area to Keokuk and includes some of western Illinois.
“There are a lot of individuals in that 19-county territory that need our help that we’ve not been able to serve,” Airy told The Gazette. “So this will really allow us to be able to scale those services.”
That likely will be in the form of growing existing programs rather than starting completely new ones, Airy said.
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Goodwill of the Heartland, registered as a 501(c) 3, focuses on job training, lifting barriers to employment and other services that lift people out of poverty with “life-sustaining, good-paying jobs,” she said.
The organization had a $34.4 million budget in 2019, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service 990 tax filing, making it one of Iowa’s largest not-for-profits.
All the $10 million won’t be spent in one place, though. The not-for-profit organization is looking at financially sustainable projects that Airy said can long outlast her own time at Goodwill.
“Sometimes you get a grant and you’re able to provide services for two or three years, and then the services stop,” Airy explained. “We want to make sure that we’re being good stewards of Mackenzie’s gift and being able to sustain those efforts over the long term.”
Scott considered 6,490 not-for-profit organizations through “a data-driven approach,” Scott wrote in a Medium post. After in-depth research on 822 finalists, she chose the 384 recipients.
Scott’s advisers reached out to Airy as part of a largely confidential vetting process that included multiple interviews ahead of the unsolicited donation.
Airy said Goodwill of the Heartland never has received a donation close in size to Scott’s.
Scott gave to not-for-profits in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Other Iowa groups to receive donations from Scott include Easterseals Iowa and YWCA Quad Cities.
“We look forward to increasing our ability to meet the needs of Iowans thanks to the generosity of Ms. Scott,” Sherri Nielsen, president and CEO of Easterseals Iowa, said in a news release.
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“This donation will make a tremendous impact for our community and will directly impact the lives of the clients we serve.”
The donations come as many not-for-profits face an especially difficult time during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Airy’s 35 years with Goodwill of the Heartland, 2020 was the “roughest year by far,” she said.
In-store sales usually account for 70 percent of Goodwill’s revenue, Airy said, which became problematic when the organization had to close stores because of COVID-19.
Goodwill of the Heartland laid off 93 percent of its staff — about 650 people, Airy said — at the beginning of the pandemic.
Although stores since have reopened and Goodwill has rehired most of its employees, customer traffic has remained notably below pre-pandemic levels.
“We will have a significant loss for the year (2020), and we’ve never experienced that before,” Airy said. “But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
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