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The Other Lesson from MacKenzie Scott


Her gifts to colleges came without strings.


That’s both excellent and uncommon.


MacKenzie Scott has donated millions to colleges and universities across the country, focusing particularly on colleges that make a material difference for students who could use it.  That’s a welcome break from the usual pattern of dollars following dollars.   Nothing against Harvard, but the marginal utility of another million there is quite a bit less than at the typical community college.  That’s terrific on its own terms.


But the more impressive part is that she rejected the popular tactic among donors of trying to micromanage how the money is used.  Instead, she identified colleges whose mission she liked, and whose management she trusted, and she entrusted them to do what’s right with the money.


I would love to see that technique set a new pattern.


Too often, new money comes with new strings.  The idea behind that, I suppose, is to inspire confidence among the ones providing the money that it will be used in ways of which they approve.  And certainly money with strings is preferable to no money at all.


But sometimes, the reality on the ground is different from what the donor (or legislator) assumes.  


For example, many grants assume that whatever resources are dedicated to a given program or group are dedicated only to that group. And that may be true when the college, or group, is massive.  But when you’re dealing with smaller populations, nearly every office or classroom has to serve multiple purposes.  At a previous college at which I worked, for instance, a grant we received specified that the employees it paid for could only work with students involved in a particular program.  That meant, for instance, that one advisor had to sit on his hands much of the time, even while other advisors had long lines of students.  That led to some predictable complaints among both students and other employees.  It would have been much better for everyone involved if the advisor had been free to see other students too, even if only on a ‘space available’ basis.


Classrooms and classroom equipment can raise similar issues.  If, say, a computer lab can only be used by students in certain programs, then we still need other, additional computer labs for everyone else.  That leads to inefficient use of space and staff.  But from the perspective of, say, a legislator who is juggling a great many requests, it may look like we’ve already been taken care of by the dedicated funding.  


Worse, every new constraint brings with it new costs of compliance and monitoring.  We have people whose job it is to monitor and report on compliance with grants.  I doubt that most funders would consider that an efficient use of resources, but it’s necessary when, say, you can only “supplement” and not “supplant” operating funds.  


Scott’s breakthrough — and it’s really worth the term — is to recognize that stipulations that might make sense at campus A could be inefficient or counterproductive at campus B, even if everybody is acting in good faith.  Circumstances are just too varied.  Instead, the most efficient bang for the buck is to allow well-run organizations to use the resources as they deem necessary.  That reduces the need for monitoring and reporting, and gets around the advisor-sitting-on-his-hands problem.  It may even help level the playing field in competition for other grants, since they often come with “institutional matching fund” requirements.  For colleges that are already underfunded, the “matching fund” requirement seems like a cruel joke.  But being able to use a gift like that to bring in other money can help a college gain some forward momentum.


Obviously, what would be even better than a generous and farsighted donor would be a legislative commitment to ongoing operating funding at an appropriate level.  But while we wait for that to happen — and wait — seeing a donor set a positive example is refreshing.  Thank you, MacKenzie Scott, for showing the world how it can be done.


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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Sunday, January 10, 2021
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Sunday, January 10, 2021