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Denver nonprofit is one recipient of MacKenzie Scott's nationwide donations

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $2.7 billion to nonprofits across the country; $1 million went to Youth on Record in Denver.

DENVER — Youth on Record, a Denver-based program that works to empower teenagers and young adults with a passion for music, is one of 286 non-profits that just received a sizable gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Billionaire Scott, who was previously married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced Tuesday that she donated more than $2.7 billion to organizations across the country, though Youth on Record’s executive director has known about the gift for about a month.

Jami Duffy was relieved to be able to talk about it, finally.

“I thought I was going to have to take this to the grave, and I just, I didn’t know how I was possibly going to pull that off,” she said. “My own mother, who begged me to tell her -- and I couldn’t tell her until yesterday.”

The gifting process started with a cryptic email about a mysterious person who noticed the non-profit and wanted to donate. Duffy felt sure this was a scam.

“One thing led to another, to a phone call. I even teased the donor’s team and said, ‘Are you real? Are you the Russians?’ And they laughed and said well, before we proceed, can we talk about the confidential nature of this gift?” Duffy said.

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In the call, Duffy learned Scott and her now-husband Dan Jewett wanted to donate $1 million. She said it was one of the most exciting calls she’s ever taken.

“My hand was shaking when they told me that. And I remember just writing down ‘one million.’ Like I was going to forget the amount,” Duffy said.

Youth on Record was founded in 2008. The group wants to make music accessible to young people, helping them achieve success academically, economically and artistically. Current Colorado musicians teach and mentor the youth who are part of the nonprofit.

“We don’t want musicians who either make it or are starving. That narrative is old and tired,” Duffy said. “We are working to do something different here and make a positive impact on the community at the same time.”

“Musician middle class to us means a thriving group of musicians who are able to sustain and importantly make a good quality living.”

As much as the group can help young people, Duffy said that ultimately, creative industries also help drive the economy.

The recipients of Scott’s donations, ranging from schools to racial equity projects, can largely decide for themselves how they spend the money. It's an idea referred to as trust-based philanthropy. Duffy advocates for this support because she believes people doing the work in their sector know best how to allocate funds. She said this practice can especially help non-profits run by people of color, who might have many strings attached to donations.

Scott's method of giving could be a game-changer for non-profits, Duffy said.

"It’s not that there shouldn’t be accountability in the nonprofit sector. There should be accountability in every sector, but the folks that we’re accountable to are the folks we serve," she said. "We’re accountable to our young people. We’re accountable to the artists that we provide services for, and so part of trust-based philanthropy is putting that accountability into the hands of our clients. This gift allows us to do that even more."

Youth on Record plans to use some of the money for employee benefits, such as retirement, health care and mental health stipends. Mostly, however, the gift will fund a yet-to-be-announced "big idea." The plan is to address racial and social inequalities in the music industry.

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