Billionaire makes $18 million gift to Charlotte YMCA. ‘I started to cry,’ CEO says

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Catherine Muccigrosso
·5 min read
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The YMCA of Greater Charlotte has decided how it will spend the largest single donation in the nearly 150-year-old nonprofit’s history – a “jaw-dropping” $18 million.

Billionaire philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, in a public announcement in December on her blog, named the Charlotte Y as one of 384 organizations receiving a piece of more than $4.1 billion. Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, called the coronavirus pandemic “a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling.”

MacKenzie Bezos
MacKenzie Bezos

Todd Tibbits, CEO of the Charlotte Y, told the Observer on Tuesday a “simple email” in November shared that a philanthropist with similar values demonstrated by the Y was interested in making a donation. When he spoke with a Scott representative the following month, Tibbits was writing everything down until he learned the gift was an unrestricted $18 million.

“I literally dropped my pen, and my jaw dropped open, I was speechless, especially after the year that we had in 2020,” Tibbits said.

“Honestly, I started to cry,” he said. “I knew what we had been through as an organization and I knew what this meant to the YMCA and our community.”

The donation came as the Y faced a revenue decline of $40 million because of the pandemic.

Tibbits said the Y had shelved a comprehensive campaign in March 2020 that focused on health equity initiatives.

“What this gift has allowed us to do is really intensify our focus,” Tibbits said. “This is something that is going to have generational impact for our community.”

The Y is a Christian-based organization that promotes healthy spirit, mind and body at its gym branches and through community programs, according to its website.

Todd Tibbits
Todd Tibbits

How the money will be spent

On Monday, the Y’s board unanimously adopted its task force recommendation to use the money for programs to help break the cycle of poverty through health equity initiatives, and youth and teen opportunity. The task force is made up of community leader volunteers, according to the Y.

“We have a tremendous amount of important work ahead, and we cannot do it alone,” Theresa Drew, board chair of YMCA of Greater Charlotte, said in the news release.

The health equity initiatives include increasing access to healthy food and nutrition education and care and mental health services, and expanding chronic disease prevention services. The Y plans to transform some of its existing locations into health equity campuses.

Youth and teen opportunity initiatives will focus on underserved neighborhoods by building on the success of the Y’s summer programs.

The Y’s initial focus will be in the West Boulevard and Beatties Ford corridors.

“This is not a ‘one-and-done’ project – this is the beginning of an exciting transformation for our organization, and one that will require strategic partnerships and philanthropic investment to sustain this bold and catalytic vision in the years to come,” Tibbits said. “We have always been much more than a ‘gym and swim’ and now we can elevate our community work more than ever before.”

The Y has 19 membership locations and two overnight camps in the Charlotte area.

COVID-19 impacts the Y

The Y suspended all programs and access to its branches and camps in Mach 20 because of the coronavirus pandemic. It also furloughed many of its 240 full-time and 3,500 part-time employees, according to the Y.

Y’s programs and membership make up almost 90% of revenue, Tibbits told the Observer last April.

Throughout the pandemic, the Y has continued to offer free child care for essential health care workers, collected personal protection equipment, served as COVID-19 testing sites and distributed groceries to neighbors in need.

Tibbits said the Charlotte Y on Monday launched its first membership campaign in over a year. Prior to the pandemic, there were about 62,000 family household memberships, and now the Y is at 29,000, he said.

“We have a long way to go in this rebuilding process,” Tibbits said.

Charlotte Goodwill also gifted millions

At the time of Scott’s announcement four months ago, the Y would not share the amount of her donation. Tibbits said that’s because the Y formed a task force and wanted to be as thoughtful and strategic as possible deciding how to spend the $18 million.

“We see this as a transformational opportunity,” he said. “It’s really not for the YMCA, we consider this a gift to the community.”

Another Charlotte organization, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont also received the largest single donation of $10 million in the nonprofit’s 55-year history. CEO and president Chris Jackson shared with the Observer how the phone call from Scott’s team was a surprise. Goodwill helps thousands of people in the Charlotte region find employment by providing job training, career development and employment placement.

Scott’s team reviewed 6,490 organizations as areas where she could make the most impact based on food insecurity, racial inequity and poverty rates. Seven other North Carolina groups also were recipients.

Plus, three donations went to colleges: Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina A&T State University and Winston-Salem State University.

Scott said the donation decision were based on “high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached.”