In conversation with Shannon Hunt-Scott
Shannon Hunt-Scott is President of The Scott Foundation, which she co-founded with husband Kevin Scott, CTO of Microsoft. We sat down to talk to Shannon about the questions that new donors can use to jumpstart their philanthropy, why general operating support is her gospel, and why we all have a responsibility to invest in our community.
Tell us about your philanthropic journey. How did you get started?
When we first moved out here in 2006, I sat on a couple of nonprofit boards, and I wanted to have a greater impact. That desire coincided with significant success in my husband’s professional career that gave us the resources to embark on this philanthropic journey. It would’ve been easier to just open a DAF and be a donor, but I felt like this was my calling; the second act of my professional life. We created The Scott Foundation in 2014 and have used it as a platform to generate that greater impact. The work also allows me to role model to my children what it means to be committed to our community.
What is the focus of your philanthropy today?
Our foundation’s focus areas are: educational equity, social entrepreneurship, social and reproductive justice, and civic engagement.
For me, giving has always been partnered with a willingness to show up and do the work for an organization. In 2017, we founded the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Hillbrook School to inspire kids to make long-term impact for people and the planet. I work closely with the team at Hillbrook to ensure the success of that vision.
We’ve also invested deeply in East San Jose, in the Santee neighborhood and Franklin-McKinley school district, which I can see from my house. I think of those kids as my kids. It's about giving kids the tools they need to live their best and most successful lives, because access to opportunity is so deeply inequitable. Since 2017, I’ve served on the board of Educare California at Silicon Valley, which provides high-quality early learning experiences to young children in East San Jose.
As for the social and reproductive justice work—I sit on the board of NARAL ProChoice America and have actively fundraised for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte—it’s about ensuring that everyone has the freedom to make their own choices, because women deserve autonomy over their bodies. That belief sits at the core of who I am and the work I do.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in becoming an effective philanthropist? What felt daunting or overwhelming?
In a perfect world, when we chose the original focus areas of our foundation, I would have mapped out all the organizations working in those areas and met with them. But when we launched the foundation, my kids were 2 and 4 years old, I was trying to run our family and our lives, and I could only carve out time to pursue philanthropy on the side.
For the first several years, I felt overwhelmed, like I was mostly winging it. But it worked out okay. True, I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth, but I was eager to learn about the nonprofit landscape in the Valley. I was always willing to take a meeting, even if it took a long time to schedule.
There were many points along my philanthropic journey when it would have been easier to hang up my hat and become a lady who lunches, but I learned from my mistakes and kept pushing. I’ve always gravitated toward charismatic leaders, and over time I’ve learned how to partner with them more effectively. I’ve grown better at sharing what’s important to me and why. I’ve learned that development professionals prefer a hard no to chasing a person who’s not interested, so I’ve gotten clearer about saying no to things that are not in my wheelhouse or interest area. I feel pretty good about where I’m at today, but I wish I’d had Magnify Community when I was starting out.
Why do you believe in multi-year general operating support?
I know a lot of people think that programmatic support is “sexier” because you can point to the specific impact you’re making, but general operating support is gospel for me. Serving on the boards of so many non-profit organizations during the pandemic, I saw firsthand how nonprofits needed to pivot in order to serve kids and clients in different ways. I sit on the board of The Tech Interactive, which had to close its doors for 15 months. During that time, we had to find different ways to serve the children of our community. General operating support gave them, and similar organizations, the flexibility to do that.
We seeded our foundation with money Kevin made after the acquisition of the start-up where he was working. All the people who invested in that start-up essentially gave his team general operating dollars, trusting them to make good decisions about everything from paying salaries to the PG&E bill and office supplies. We take the same trust-based approach to investing in non-profit organizations.
Just as important are multi-year grants. Multi-year grants are important so that nonprofits aren’t clamoring for funds every year. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies and they need us [donors] to stick with them through the hard times, to keep their doors open, their staff employed, and their clients served. Multi-year grants of general operating support provide organizations with the runway they need to be successful.
What compels you to continue funding an organization?
Leader, mission, and story. The organizations I love the most are the ones where I’m connected with a leader who is living a mission. I want a compelling leader to tell me a powerful story about what they’re trying to do and who they’re trying to help. I’m not really a data person, and I’m unapologetic about that. I’m a historian by training, and I’ve always been about people and story and narrative.
What’s inspired me most along my philanthropic journey is being a good listener to the people on the ground doing the work. I’m the Board member who gravitates towards staff, being inspired by the people who do the work and trying to find ways I can help.
What are you most proud of?
When Ilyse Hogue stepped down as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, her parting compliment to me was: “It would be easy for you to just write big checks, but you keep showing up and doing the work: making the calls and knocking on the doors.” I want to help more people sooner, and that means not just writing checks—that wouldn’t feel like enough to me— but also serving on boards, chairing fundraising committees, and using all of my time, talent, and ties to help. Writing a check might be the least interesting thing I bring to the table these days.
We each have our own lanes, but we all have a responsibility to push the ball forward on social change. That’s what real systemic change requires: everyone taking a piece and owning it, everyone pushing the ball down the court.
What advice do you have for someone who’s interested in making a difference but doesn’t know where to start?
Ask yourself: what matters to you and what are you doing about it? And then just start. Just plant your flag. You don’t have to do a major research project to understand what the entire landscape looks like. Whether you care about hunger, education, homelessness, or the environment, start in one place. You don’t have to justify your giving. You don’t have to defend your giving to anyone else. You don’t have to be perfect in your giving. But don’t be so intimidated by the complexity of giving or the problems we face as a society that you don’t do it. Over time, you may learn some things and deepen your giving in that place where you planted your flag, or you may choose to move down the road.
Sometimes you make a gift and you don’t feel appreciated because they didn’t do a good job of stewarding you. Or you don’t know what happened to the money because they didn’t do a good job of sharing the impact. Or maybe you don’t feel connected and you really want to work with an organization where you can build a deeper relationship. None of those things mean that the gift was a mistake, but it just might not be the place where you can make the most impact, so move on to the next place.
What advice do you have for nonprofit organizations looking to engage with more high-capacity donors?
The most satisfying relationships are the ones that are true partnerships. Where they know your kids’ names, why you give to them, and the other things you care about. Where the relationship is authentic and genuine and doesn’t feel transactional.
For me, it’s important that an organization tells the story about why your giving matters, and they do it consistently—not just once a year. They offer touch points to engage on a regular basis...even if sometimes I’m too busy to take advantage of them, I know they’re there when I’m ready and able to engage. I know that’s hard work, but that’s what sets apart an awesome development person or team.
When a personalized thank you note communicates, “You matter to our community,” that fills my bucket. That’s what gets me through the days when board meetings are long and hard and stressful. That’s what helps me stay committed to a cause.
And for any organization that’s afraid of asking volunteers for money, my advice to you is: if I give you my time [whether as a volunteer or even just a site visit] and you don’t ask me for money, you’ve missed an opportunity. I’m surprised by the number of organizations that spend weeks or months trying to get in front of me and then never follow up.
What do you love most about Silicon Valley?
I love the possibility and opportunity of Silicon Valley. This is a place where companies that change the world start in garages. There’s a lot of good that originates here, and that’s inspirational.
Local philanthropy is so important to me because I know that the possibilities that exist in the Valley for families like mine are borne on the backs of families like the ones I support in East San Jose. When I lived in Willow Glen, my running route led me past apartments that were probably filled with kids who were hungry, not half a mile from my house. Those aren’t other people’s kids, those are OUR kids. Kids in OUR community, not across the country or the world. We have to show up for them. We have to recognize that it takes everyone in order for this community to thrive. If you made your money here, you need to give your money here, to invest in all the things that make the Valley great.