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Surprise! Pittburgh-based youth and family nonprofit gets $10 million gift, no strings attached

A participant in one of Pressley Ridge’s Community-Based programs graduates from high school.
Rebecca Kiger
Pressley Ridge
A participant in one of Pressley Ridge’s community-based programs graduates from high school.

A Pittsburgh-area nonprofit has received a $10 million no-strings-attached donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Headquartered in McCandless, Pressley Ridge operates some 70 programs in six states that focus on emotional, behavioral and educational support for children and families. Some areas of focus include kids with autism, and kids involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

"It's like Christmas times a thousand," said Pressley Ridge Executive Director Susanne Cole, who has known about the unsolicited gift for about a week.

Big surprise

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Cole says she had no idea that Pressley Ridge was on Scott's radar. In fact, when a representative first made contact, she suspected it was a phishing email.

"I thought, 'Oh, I better be careful. This looks like spam,’" she said. "Then I got a phone call."

Cole considers the gift to be a tribute "to the work that our staff are doing and the outcomes that we're producing for kids and families."

The nonprofit, which says its annual revenue is $78 million, is still deciding what it wants to do with the $10 million donation, the largest gift in its 190-year history. However, Cole notes the need for mental health services has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, so some of the money will likely go towards that.

One thing Cole doesn't want to do is create a service that will end after Scott's money is spent. She says one option would be to use the gift to launch a pilot program that could lead to a government contract.

"[It gives Pressley Ridge] an ability to be creative and entrepreneurial, just like the for-profit world, to show that something works and then to get funding for it," she said.

Scott's philanthropy 

Since 2019, Scott has donated $12 billion, according to the New York Times. Most of the organizations are in communities to which Scott has no particular connection; areas of focus include racial equity, children and families, arts, education, and health care.

Her large-scale, no-strings-attached giving began shortly after she divorced Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Bloomberg reports that Scott owns 14.9 million shares of the company; last year, Fortuneranked her as the 22nd richest person in the world.

As has been the case with her previous donations, Scott's gift to Pressley Ridge was one of many that was announced via a Medium post published last week. In total, 465 nonprofits received a combined sum of $3.86 billion. It's up to the specific organizations to disclose how much they receive.

"We don’t advocate for particular policies or reforms," wrote Scott. "Instead, we seek a portfolio of organizations that supports the ability of all people to participate in solutions."

Due to the minimum promotion, Pittsburgh media did not learn of the Pressley Ridge gift until the organization published a press release on Tuesday. Habitat of Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh is another recent awardee, receiving $2.5 million.

Other Pittsburgh-area organizations that have benefited from Scott's philanthropy include Pittsburgh's Advancing Black Arts initiative and the YMCA-Great Pittsburgh, which last year received$2 million and $20 million, respectively.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.