Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gives $1 million to San Diego nonprofit David’s Harp Foundation

How does a grassroots San Diego nonprofit arts organization thank a benefactor it has never met or spoken with for an unsolicited, seven-figure donation?

That’s the happy — if previously unimaginable — question for David’s Harp Foundation, which this week was announced as a recipient of a $1 million donation from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. It’s a game-changing gift yet for the 12-year-old nonprofit, which provides free music and video-production lessons to San Diego teenagers, many of whom are in homeless shelters, foster care and the juvenile justice system.

“We are so humbled by this gift,” said Brandon Steppe, who launched what became David’s Harp Foundation in his father’s garage in 2006.

“Tears were coming down Brandon’s face, and I literally fell down on my knees and cried,” added Joseph Mack, the foundation’s director of programming. “This still doesn’t feel real.”

David’s Harp Foundation is one of 286 organizations named this week as recipients of more than $2.7 billion in no-strings-attached donations from philanthropist Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and her second husband, Dan Jewett. This is the third round of such gifts from Scott and Jewett, who in December gave $10 million to Goodwill Industries here, $8 million to the San Diego Foundation’s COVID 19 Community Response Fund, $4 million to Meals on Wheels San Diego and an undisclosed amount to YWCA of San Diego County, which runs domestic abuse shelters.

In a statement posted online Tuesday on her blog, Scott explained how she chose her latest group of beneficiaries.

“I want to de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others, yet I know some media stories will focus on wealth,” she wrote. “The headline I would wish for this post is ‘286 Teams Empowering Voices the World Needs to Hear.’ ”

That wished-for headline almost reads like a mission statement for David’s Harp Foundation, which occupies a 4,000-square-foot space in East Village.

David's Harp Foundation students

Teenage students at the nonprofit David’s Harp Foundation in San Diego’s East Village are shown learning how to do audio mixes in the foundation’s digital music lab.

(Courtesy David’s Harp Foundation)

The labor-of-love nonprofit provides free studio time, technical training and mentorship to at-risk youths between the ages of 14 and 18. Those whose behavior and school grades improve are rewarded with extra free studio time to work on their music and videos.

David’s Harp Foundation takes its name from a story in the Bible about music’s ability to repel evil spirts.

Prior to this week’s $1 million gift from Scott and Jewett, the largest donation to the foundation was in January 2020 when it received a $500,000 Lewis Prize for Music grant. The timing of the new $1 million donation is especially serendipitous for the gutsy foundation, which recently has been working on a five-year growth plan.

“It’s amazing because we were just trying to figure out how we could expand and move into the communities of East County, North County and South County to create safe spaces where young people can be creative,” said Steppe, a former jazz saxophonist who quit his car rental management position to start his foundation.

“This $1 million gift is an opportunity, a beginning, and a cornerstone for us to be able to provide more opportunity for youth in the county. It’s so exciting to receive so much support from outside the county, and I want to thank those who have consistently supported us. It’s great that their faith in us is now being rewarded.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation was providing instruction and mentorship to about 400 at-risk youths annually at its East Village location. That number now stands at 200 — 150 of whom are taught virtually and 50 of whom attend socially distanced in-person sessions at the foundation’s headquarters.

“Currently, we also teach about 60 kids a week in person at San Diego Juvenile Hall and at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility,” said Mack, who befriended Steppe when both were students at San Diego School of Creative & Performing Arts.

The pandemic initially saw the foundation team with downtown’s Harbor City Church to provide groceries and supplies to people in need. The foundation’s subsequent partnership with Cox Communications created a distanced learning program that was implemented last fall.

Now, the foundation’s goal of empowering young people through artistic expression has been dramatically elevated by Scott’s $1 million gift.

Steppe chuckled when asked how the foundation will thank its million-dollar benefactor.

“I don’t know if it will be a new original song or video,” he said. “But I know the young people in our community will come up with something really cool to thank Ms. MacKenzie Scott for this incredible gift and opportunity.”




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