Penumbra Theatre artistic director Sarah Bellamy was standing in line at a grocery store with her greens and lasagna when she got the call from a representative of MacKenzie Scott, the author, philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

What Bellamy heard made her sit down. Penumbra, long a font of theatrical excellence and cultural leadership, was receiving a $5 million gift.

"It's the biggest single award in the history of Penumbra and was completely unexpected," Bellamy said. "It supercharges our ability to realize our dreams as we build this center for racial healing."

St. Paul-based Penumbra is one of three Minnesota-based nonprofits that received surprise donations this week from Scott, who announced Tuesday that she was awarding $2.7 billion to 286 organizations across the United States — part of her pledge to give away a majority of her wealth in her lifetime.

Scott also announced donations last July and December, including more than $25 million to six Minnesota nonprofits.

Arts Midwest, which serves a nine-state area and is based in Minneapolis, declined to share how much the organization received. But CEO Torrie Allen said it's the largest one-time gift in the organization's 36-year history.

"This gift is hugely significant and transformative … strong communities need strong partners, and this gift will help us show up across and support the Midwest in unprecedented ways," Allen said in a statement.

Borealis Philanthropy, a national funder that lists a Minneapolis address on federal tax forms, also received a donation. Borealis funds work on disability issues, transgender rights and racial equity, among other causes.

"This gift recognizes that boldly giving to communities is possible, and necessary," Borealis Philanthropy president Amoretta Morris said in a statement.

Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, made the donations along with a team of researchers and advisers "to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change," she wrote in her online post.

Scott added that she and her team picked "equity-oriented" nonprofits working in areas or communities that are historically underfunded.

"In this effort, we are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others," she wrote.

Unlike most traditional philanthropy, the donations are "unrestricted," which means nonprofits can use the money in any way they see fit instead of having to use it for a specific program or project.

"We believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use," Scott wrote.

Penumbra's Bellamy, for one, appreciates the trust.

"I do feel like MacKenzie Scott is doing something really powerful and strategic in investing in organizations that are on the ground doing the tough work," Bellamy said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice reckoning, Penumbra had been broadening its mission to include racial equity and healing in its work.

Scott's gift, which follows on the heels of other grants to Penumbra from the likes of the Mellon, Ford and McKnight foundations, gives the theater room to grow, according to its leaders.

"To be able to develop an opportunity fund was a dream that was not realizable 10 years ago," Bellamy said. "I'm glad we found alignment with donors who understand this deep need for racial healing and authentic representation for Black people, Black excellence. This is the essential work of our nation right now."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141