Scott MacDonald knows he leads a charmed life. The retired corporate fixer enjoyed a long and lucrative career, he walks the beach every morning with his Lab mix, Sadie, and he grows chardonnay grapes in a mini-vineyard at his Del Mar home.
But the low-cost educational opportunities that propelled him from an impoverished childhood to the corporate boardroom barely exist today. So at 69, MacDonald is dedicating the rest of his life to righting the scales through his MacDonald Scholars program.
So far, 60 “pay it forward” MacDonald scholarships have been endowed at universities around the country. They provide scholars with $20,000 over four years in exchange for 260-280 hours of annual community service and the creation of a “big idea” project to help the needy. MacDonald, who underwrites the launch of each program, said his goal is to grow the number of scholars to 100 by 2020.
“My success, in part, is due to getting a quality education — but school was cheap when I went,” he said of the $1,400 in tuition he paid at Indiana University in the mid-1960s. “I worked at a factory and was able to pay my way through school. But the equation that allowed me to climb the ladder is not there anymore. Everybody should have the same access to a quality education that I did.”
The MacDonald Scholars program is now in place at his alma mater, IU, as well as the University of North Carolina, where he did graduate work. It was first established at Davidson College in North Carolina, where his two sons, Andrew, 36, and Ross, 31, attended.
It has also recently been launched at the University of Michigan and the University of San Diego, where the program’s 16 scholars will be supervised by USD’s Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action.
Sandra Ciallella, USD’s associate vice president of development, said she’s been “truly, truly impressed” by MacDonald’s passion and selflessness.
“He’s been absolutely wonderful to work with,” Ciallella said. “It’s a blessing that there are people out there like Scott who want to make this kind of difference.”
MacDonald’s childhood in Illinois could rival that of a character in a Charles Dickens novel. As he wrote in his recently published autobiography, MacDonald nearly died at birth, was abused by his alcoholic mother and all his male role models (his father, grandfather and uncle) died before his 10th birthday.
His first job was washing dishes at his junior high school cafeteria in exchange for meals. From that day forward he paid virtually all of his own expenses tossing newspapers, mowing lawns, bagging groceries and, beginning at age 18, assembling insulation for utility poles in a sweltering factory in Cicero, Ill.
After a year of desk duty and surgeries that left him with a permanent limp, he was honorably discharged. Fortunately, the GI bill allowed him to finish his studies in city planning and in 1972 he moved to Washington, D.C., to begin a career in commercial real estate.
Over the next 40 years, MacDonald and his former wife, Jill, crisscrossed the country with their sons as he worked his way up in the corporate world. He started in market research and then moved into shopping mall development and renovation (including a long stretch with San Diego’s Hahn Company).
In 2002, he became a corporate turnaround consultant for subsidiaries of Morgan Stanley. The job took him all over the world and concluded in Australia, where from 2008 to 2013, he served as chairman and CEO of Investa Property Group, and gradually guided the huge real estate company out of insolvency.
It was in Australia that MacDonald figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Years before, when his sons were at Davidson College, MacDonald created the first “pay-it-forward” scholarships at the university’s Center for Civic Engagement.
He knew the scholarships reduced the students’ debt load but hadn’t realized their psychological benefits. Then one day he was visited in Investa’s Sydney office by Olivia Tate, a past MacDonald Scholar, who told him the experience had changed her life. For her “big idea” project, she’d created and sold picture books to underwrite an elementary school in Ethiopia. She’s been selling books and underwriting the school’s operating expenses ever since.
Moved by her story, MacDonald began seeking out other past scholars from Davidson. One of them was Eli Kahn, 26, whose pay-it-forward project involved bicycling across India to distribute free, hand-held solar reading lights to students in villages with no electricity so they could study at night.
Kahn recently finished a fellowship with the Foundation for the Carolinas and plans to work in the nonprofit sector after finishing his MBA at Duke University.
“I can say 100 percent that the MacDonald scholarship helped catapult me to the path I’m on now. It was an absolutely transformative experience,” Kahn said, adding that meeting MacDonald two years ago was also life-changing. “Scott is so passionate about helping others. I was inspired by how he saw his project as an investment in individuals, rather than an investment in a cause.”
Over the years there have been 12 MacDonald Scholars at Davidson. Stacey Riemer, the college’s associate dean of students, said all of the scholars have appreciated the hands-on service opportunities it offered as much as the money.
“From my experience, these types of immersive experiences are incredibly valuable,” said Riemer, who runs Davidson’s Center for Civic Engagement. “They provide students with the types of leadership learning experiences to be leaders in our community upon graduation.”
Since retiring early last year, MacDonald has devoted about half of his time to expanding the program at universities with active community outreach programs. He puts up all the seed money, then donates his time to the universities to help them establish new pools of donors to sustain the programs, since he says he’ll run out of money eventually.
“My goal is to do some of them and have other schools copy the model. I don’t care what they call it. I just want them to do it,” he said.
MacDonald is donating all the proceeds from his first book, “Saving Investa,” to the MacDonald Scholars program. He plans to do the same with two more books in the pipeline.
The next book (with expert advice from his rescue pet, Sadie) will be about how to live a better life from a dog’s perspective. The third will tackle the growing problem of college student debt in the U.S. He hopes programs like MacDonald Scholars program will be a small part of that solution.
“It’s my life’s work now,” he said. “This will change people’s lives and it’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Ciallella at USD said that the first things she noticed about MacDonald were his boundless energy, his sense of commitment and his big-picture thinking.
“When we first met, I wasn’t sure we could pull this off … but the more time we spent, the more I came to appreciate his world vision,” Ciallella said. “There’s not a time you meet with him where it’s not clear that this is something he wants to spread widely. I couldn’t agree with him more.”