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Afrika Tikkun gets multi-million-dollar grant from Amazon-ex

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Afrika Tikkun, has been given a multi-million-dollar boost by MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The South African social upliftment organisation is one of only three Jewish-founded groups selected worldwide by the philanthropist to help.

“This fantastic windfall will enable us to achieve a lot more,” Afrika Tikkun’s group chief executive, Marc Lubner, told the SA Jewish Report. “We feel incredibly gifted, and we’re hoping that with this money, we’ll be able to have an impact on a greater number of community-based organisations. We hope to motivate other community-based organisations to follow similar sorts of programmes to our cradle-to-career model.”

Founded in 1994 by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and philanthropist and businessman Dr Bertie Lubner, Afrika Tikkun originally aimed to help repair some of the damage done by the apartheid regime. Today, it uplifts young people living in underprivileged circumstances through a holistic model that attends to nutritional, health, and social needs, as well as personal, academic, and practical skills training. It tracks their well-being as they grow up, providing everything from early childhood development to work-readiness programmes.

In a post on the website Medium, in which Scott announced her donations, including to Afrika Tikkun, she expressed the hope that the public’s attention would shift from her and her wealth towards the work recipients are doing. “People struggling against inequities deserve centre stage in stories about change they are creating,” she said.

Lubner said that Scott’s team first became aware of Afrika Tikkun after he participated in research being conducted by Bridgespan, a non-profit consulting firm, about the impact of foreign donors on African charities.

“The team leader from Bridgespan liked our model, and said that he wanted to introduce me to a team of individuals who represented a philanthropist, although he didn’t give me any names.”

A few months ago, Lubner then began discussions with the team about what the organisation would be able to achieve if its budget was boosted significantly. “They bought into our vision that we could have a material impact on a lot more youth. We have been working for a number of years to scale up the Tikkun model to other township communities.”

Lubner said Afrika Tikkun had also recently signed an agreement with Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu for collaborative engagement. The non-profit hopes to reach more than one million young people with its programmes in the next five years, with this goal now in reach thanks to Scott’s injection of capital and confidence.

Scott, aged 51, was born in San Francisco and is a Princeton graduate, having studied fiction under writer Toni Morrison. The literary icon once described Scott as “one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative-writing classes”.

Scott went on to write two novels, one which received an American Book Award. She was with Bezos for 25 years during which Amazon was started in their garage as an online bookstore. She was involved in the company’s founding. When she and Bezos divorced in 2019, she received 4% of Amazon shares as part of her $38 billion (R542.5 billion) settlement.

Shortly after her divorce, Scott signed the Giving Pledge, a project spearheaded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, in which some of the world’s wealthiest people promise to give back the majority of their riches for the betterment of society. In her original Giving Pledge letter, Scott, declared that her “approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

Recently, it emerged that Scott had remarried Dan Jewett, a science teacher who at one point worked at the same school attended by her and Bezos’s four children. While Jewett has now joined Scott in signing the Giving Pledge, Bezos – ranked by Forbes as the richest man in the world – hasn’t. In their latest disbursements, in which Afrika Tikkun was included, Scott and Jewett gave away about $2.7 billion (38.5 billion) to 286 organisations. In total, Scott and Jewett have given away about $8.6 billion (R122.8 billion) to 786 recipients thus far.

In the latest round of giving, the other South African organisations alongside Afrika Tikkun which were recipients included mothers2mother, the Triangle Project, Ubuntu Pathways, and the African Leadership Group, which hosts an academy in Johannesburg. In terms of Jewish connections, Afrika Tikkun, was one of three Jewish-founded non-profits gifted, with the other two based in America. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helps and advocates for refugees and asylum seekers from around the world, while Repair the World mobilises Jewish people to promote social justice and offer acts of service towards the betterment of society as a whole.

There are no known Jewish connections to Scott or Jewett, who haven’t made any religious affiliations public. Lubner said he asked if there was any Jewish link in the decision to grant them the award, but no specific feedback was given on this factor.

In the Medium post about her latest donation, Scott does mention that one of her focus areas is organisations “bridging divides through interfaith support and collaboration”.

When informed about their selection, Lubner was told that the team liked the fact that the organisation had originally been founded by his father and the late chief rabbi. “They liked that there was long-term continuity from a management point of view. They also liked our values and that we had the ability to expand to a broader reach across communities.”

The donation will be used to extend Afrika Tikkun’s programmes to a number of new sites across the country, including into KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. It will also be used to collate digital resources and roll out teacher training for these platforms. An inclusion programme for handicapped children will be expanded, as will the organisation’s agricultural entrepreneurship project.

Scott’s donations have been noted for their extensive range. She gives to small grassroots initiatives and large establishments. The organisations selected offer a diversity of purpose, extending from charities and educational bodies, to dance, theatre, and music centres, museums, as well as numerous rights and advocacy groups. Also striking has been the autonomy with which the grants are given, without requiring extensive details of their usage ahead. Indeed, Lubner said that one of the prerequisites is that it’s a one-time grant without further direct contact with her unless she so wishes.

In a previous post on Medium, Scott explained her reasoning, saying, “Since we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encourage them to spend it however they choose. It empowers receivers by making them feel valued and by unlocking their best solutions. Generosity is generative. Sharing makes more.”

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