A $2.9 million gift is jaw-dropper for Urban League president

The nonprofit is the latest Omaha beneficiary of MacKenzie Scott’s ‘Giving Pledge’

By: - November 10, 2022 5:15 am

Urban League of Nebraska takes youth on a college tour. (Courtesy of Urban League of Nebraska)

OMAHA — When Wayne Brown got the $2.9 million phone call a few weeks ago, you might say he was a bit floored.

“My jaw was on the ground,” said the relatively new chief executive of the Urban League of Nebraska. “I mean, this doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen, right?”

Neither he nor his staff had applied for such a gift. It is the largest single contribution in the nonprofit’s 90-year history, and about the size of its annual budget. Initially, Brown thought the whole thing was a prank.

Wayne Brown, chief executive of Urban League of Nebraska (Courtesy of Urban League of Nebraska)

‘Secretive’

But he quickly learned that it was the type of giving that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, author and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is known for. Certain specifics about the selection process are shrouded in mystery.

“The thing about this gift is, it finds you,” Brown said. “It’s a very secretive process. They didn’t go into a whole lot of detail.”

What he knows is that the philanthropist’s team had done its own research, knew about his journey and knew that the national Urban League was the type of organization Scott wanted to help flourish.

The Nebraska chapter, an anchor in North Omaha, is one of 25 Urban League affiliates across the country that received similar donations, Brown said. There are about 90 chapters in all.

Scott’s philanthropy has boosted other area agencies. Among them: Omaha’s Habitat for Humanity received $11 million earlier this year; Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands also earlier this year received $2.9 million.

Giving Pledge

Such donations follow through on Scott’s promise in 2019, when she signed the Giving Pledge, a campaign that encourages extremely wealthy people to dedicate at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

The idea for the pledge was reportedly born during a meeting in 2009 between a handful of billionaires including Bill and Melinda Gates and Omaha’s Warren Buffett. 

For the Urban League of Nebraska, Brown said, the gift came with no restrictions and will be used to expand and “deepen” long-standing programs and to reach more people, including many who have been left feeling isolated by the pandemic.

Urban League students participate in a science project. (Courtesy of Urban League of Nebraska)

The agency’s school-based programs, for example, now will not only focus on reducing truancy, but also will implement “restorative practices” aimed at reducing problem behaviors and shrinking the school-to-prison pipeline.

The local Urban League also will add life and career coaching to fill a service gap faced by young adults once they age out of traditional work and employment programs.

Forge partnerships

The funds also will be used to create a system to evaluate the programs. The Urban League plans to forge partnerships with other agencies to carry out expanded initiatives.

Such efforts, Brown said, help young people and families find the power and inspiration to pursue goals and dreams, much like the Urban League did for him as a youth.

Brown was named president and CEO of the local Urban League in late 2021. He had been the agency’s vice president of programs for about five years before that.

He grew up in the 1980s when, Brown said, gangs and drugs began to grip Omaha. He turned to the Urban League, where he felt like part of a team and was treated to tours of black colleges and a broader perspective and lens on life.

“These activities gave me hope that I could be something more,” Brown said. “They were able to show me the world was much bigger than the six square miles in which I grew up. ”

Urban League students receive ACT prep instruction by Cheyenne Williams. (Courtesy of Urban League of Nebraska)

Floored, amazed, grateful

The Urban League recently was awarded a $300,000 federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) grant distributed by the City of Omaha, which also will help boost staff salaries and allow additional staff to be hired, Brown said.

Each year, the local Urban League provides educational programming to more than 1,400 students, work programs that reach 4,000 adults and support services to 3,000 low-income families.

Of the MacKenzie Scott gift, Brown said he was “floored, amazed and grateful.”

“By placing racial equity and social justice at the forefront of her philanthropic mission, Ms. Scott is shining a much needed spotlight on the nation’s structural and institutional limitations and helping to build a … more resilient society.”

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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