Efforts to give kids greater access to quality child care in Minnesota received another boost recently — this time in surprise fashion from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

She has donated $2 million to Think Small, a Little Canada-based nonprofit that administers early-learning scholarships for low-income children in Hennepin and Ramsey counties but has influence statewide, as well.

"I was obviously blown away," Barbara Yates, president and CEO of Think Small, said Thursday of the award, which was unsolicited and carries no restrictions on how to spend the money. "This is huge for us."

Think Small's announcement of Scott's gift is the latest development in a year already viewed by state early-childhood advocates as the "most exciting," legislatively, in 50 years.

Minnesota is increasing its investment in early-learning scholarships from $70 million to $196 million a year in 2023-24 and 2024-25. But that still leaves about 15,000 low-income children unable to access quality programming, according to the nonprofit's estimate.

So it says it is using Scott's donation as "seed capital" for a $10 million innovation and advocacy fund with the goals of magnifying parent voices in policymaking and "rebuilding a struggling child care sector with quality options." The $2 million already has leveraged an additional $3 million in local contributions, Yates said.

Scott, an author and the former wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has taken a special interest in early learning.

According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy tally, 24 nonprofits announced they had received unrestricted donations totaling $146 million from Scott in the first half of 2023, and nearly half went to charities focused on early-childhood education and development.

Scott has an estimated net worth of about $37 billion, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, and has pledged to give away most of her wealth in her lifetime. As of October 2022, she had given more than $80 million to Minnesota nonprofits, according to estimates based on publicly announced donation amounts.

Think Small knew that it was being vetted for a grant by an unknown funder. But it wasn't until months later that Yates was emailed on a Friday to be prepared for a call, and after "the longest weekend of my life," she said, she learned of the $2 million award.

Board members also happened to be meeting that day, and were thrilled, she added.

"We need child care providers adopting early learning best practices and parents able to find quality programs that fit their location, schedule, culture and other preferences," Tanya Skogerboe, chair of the Think Small board, said in a statement. "This generous contribution … will help us do that critically important work."

Think Small's strategy of trying to create more quality child care options in all corners of the state is an outcome of the pandemic, Yates said. She says it's no longer possible to "keep papering over the crises that are colliding in the child care space."

The nonprofit plans to look at new ways to train and support early educators, with one focus being early literacy. It also will explore different approaches to helping parents support their children's development.

Unknown for now is how Scott learned of Think Small.

"We're curious about this, too, but it might always be a mystery," Yates said. "Certainly, if anyone in Minnesota helped, we'd love to send our thanks."