Examples of wise giving in the higher-education space

Fortunately, there are many examples of donors successfully navigating the tumultuous waters of higher-education giving. It requires planning and effort on your part, but the payback is worth the work. Jack Miller, chairman of the Jack Miller Center, has a clear message: “If you aren’t prepared to protect donor intent, what you intend doesn’t mean much.” Three strategies can help:

  • Establish with the university a clear grant agreement that protects donor rights.
  • Ally with a university genuinely interested in what your support will fund.
  • Maintain strong working relationships with faculty and administrators, and channel your gifts as much as possible through campus allies rather than general administrators.

This is only the beginning. For more, see our article Twelve tips for successful giving in higher education.

Here are several practical examples of donors who have succeeded in effective grantmaking in higher education that honors their intent.

The Pizzagalli Foundation

A key example of success takes us to Vermont. Along with his two brothers Jim and Remo, Angelo Pizzagalli provides the funding for the Pizzagalli Foundation based in Burlington. Angelo and his brothers learned to be masons from their father and grew a substantial real estate and construction company. Specializing in sewer and water-treatment plants, it became the largest construction company in the Green Mountain State. The foundation is only partly funded currently, but the brothers aim to fund it fully before choosing a spend-down date.

Because Angelo and Jim are University of Vermont alumni, they were no strangers to that school’s culture. “Vermont is a very liberal place, and we felt that so many students were hearing only one side of many issues,” Angelo says. “Capitalism, free enterprise, and limited government … are not well understood on college campuses today.” Concerned that such understanding was lacking at the University of Vermont, and with careful consideration to how they might best structure their giving, the brothers made a $3 million grant in 2017 to endow the Pizzagalli Chair of Free Enterprise at UVM’s Grossman School of Business.

In crafting the six-page grant agreement for the endowed chair, the Pizzagalli Foundation worked closely with the Fund for Academic Renewal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which advises donors on best practices in higher-education philanthropy to promote adherence to donor intent. The agreement lays out the desired outcomes for the professorship and includes an escape clause that allows the Pizzagalli brothers to claw back their funding if the university goes astray.

Additionally, the professorship is not endowed in perpetuity—it sunsets by 2049. The family members who reside in Burlington maintain a close relationship with UVM and can see for themselves how the institution is administering their grant. When Andrey Ukhov was installed as the first Pizzagalli Professor of Free Enterprise in April 2019, Angelo Pizzagalli was on hand to congratulate him.

Tom Lewis

Like named professorships in specific areas of study, scholarships and fellowships are also popular giving choices for college and university donors. Phoenix homebuilder Tom Lewis

was introduced to Barrett, the residential Honors College at Arizona State University. Highly selective and highly regarded, Barrett recruits outstanding students from across the United States. Lewis became more personally acquainted with Barrett when he and his wife Jan began funding 10 scholarships each year for Arizona freshmen entering the college. In addition to tuition, the awards included career counseling and personal-development opportunities.

Lewis’ philanthropy at Arizona State sparked his thinking about bringing a comprehensive honors college to Kentucky where he has deep family roots and a special relationship with his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Lewis spent two years in discussions with UK’s president, its head of development, and a specially appointed advisory board around the mission and goals of the proposed project. Only when he was sure that every key person was on board did Lewis commit $23 million to the University of Kentucky’s new Lewis Honors College and its Center for Personal Development.

Paul Singer

After both of Paul Singer’s sons attended Williams College, he was solicited by its development office for a large gift to a capital campaign. He declined that request and sought advice from trusted colleagues about ways to ensure that any support he did provide would be used wisely in areas he cared about. They cautioned him not to give endowment funds, but rather to offer a couple years of funding at a time, renewable if used to his satisfaction. They also recommended that he avoid going through the president or development office, but instead find a likeminded professor who would supervise all spending and program execution. 

Singer identified Williams political scientist James McAllister as the person to create, with his donation, a new program in American foreign policy. For about $150,000 a year, the result is a lecture series, a visiting professor, a postdoctoral scholar, a journal, summer seminars, campus events, and a core group of 15 to 20 students at a time focused on strengthening America’s position in the world. Singer notes that this amount of money would have been insignificant in a generalized capital campaign. But by defining his gift carefully, making it time-limited, repeatedly renewed, and run by a person whom he trusts, it has had real influence. The program is entering its twelfth year.

The Charles Koch Foundation

Higher-education donors have also opted to fund academic centers at colleges and universities, either by creating them from scratch or sustaining existing ones. The Charles Koch Foundation has supported well over 100 such centers focused on economic freedom, criminal justice and policing reform, tolerance and free expression, foreign policy, and technology and innovation. Examples of Koch Foundation investments include the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University, the Center for Grand Strategy within the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2018, the Koch Foundation made the decision to make all its multi-year grant agreements with major universities publicly available. Many such agreements, signed between 2016 and 2019, are now available on the foundation’s website. Donors considering funding new academic centers may find these grant agreements quite helpful in structuring their conversations with university leadership, faculty, and staff. All begin with a firm statement of support for “open inquiry and a diversity of ideas in higher education” and then include critical details that donors should not overlook. As an example, the agreement for a grant to the Arizona State University Foundation—supporting the Academy for Justice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law—lays out the specific positions to be funded, the grant award schedule, and the conditions under which the donor has the right to terminate the award.