Big Donors to Colleges Increasingly Focus on Ways to Spur Social Mobility

Michael Bloomberg topped The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s new rankings of the 50 donors who gave the most to charitable causes in the past year largely because of his giving to higher education. The rankings, released on Tuesday, show that five donors gave $1 billion or more to charitable causes last year.

Colleges are major beneficiaries of the 50 donors who gave the most. In 2019, 30 higher-education institutions received $4.7 billion from the Philanthropy 50 donors. That’s a significant share of the $15.8 billion donated by people on the list.

Bloomberg, whose $3.3 billion in total giving included a $1.8-billion gift to the Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, is one of a growing number of big donors who are making generous donations aimed squarely at using scholarship aid to promote social mobility.

The donors are taking an array of approaches. Bloomberg gave an amount designed to ensure that Hopkins students would never have to take out loans and that the institution could always admit anybody, regardless of his or her ability to pay.

Another donor on the list was Robert Smith, the financier who pledged $34 million to pay the debts of an entire graduating class at Morehouse College. He is trying to encourage other donors to follow his approach, and has even hired experts to create a playbook on the legal ins and outs to distribute to others.

Smith donated more than $55 million in total, giving to an array of charities, to rank No. 35. Morehouse is now trying to tap into the generosity that Smith’s gift inspired by creating a fund that smaller donors can use to pay off the debts of certain types of students, such as those who become schoolteachers, and to support scholarships.

Here are several other donors on the Philanthropy 50 who focused on helping people move up the income ladder by going to college:

  • Stewart and Lynda Resnick, founders of the Wonderful Company, which makes POM Wonderful and Fiji Water, donated S2.4 million to Wonderful Education, a program they created to provide college scholarships to their employees’ children, students who participate in an agriculture program the Resnicks support, and graduates of a college-preparatory charter school they started. The Resnicks ranked No. 6 in large part because of a $750-million gift they made to the California Institute of Technology for research to tackle climate change.
  • Denny Sanford, a banker in Sioux Falls, S.D., provided $350 million to National University to endow programs for working and adult students. He ranked No. 8, with total giving of $533.5 million.
  • David and Jane Walentas committed $100 million to the University of Virginia, earmarking $75 million for undergraduates and M.B.A. students who are the first people in their families to attend college. The rest of the money covers general financial aid. David Walentas, a real-estate developer and UVa alumnus, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy that, “growing up, I didn’t know anyone who had been to college. But I knew it was a way out of poverty and path to opportunity.” The couple, who ranked No. 22, also donated $5 million to the Moore College of Art and Design to provide financial aid to female artists.
  • Jeff and Laurie Ubben gave $50 million to Northwestern University to support financial aid for undergraduate, graduate, and professional-school students. Jeff Ubben, a San Francisco investor, earned an M.B.A. there in 1987. They ranked No. 38.
  • David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, donated $46 million (ranking No. 44) to the University of California at Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine, to shore up the David Geffen Medical Scholarship Fund, which provides full tuition and a living stipend for medical students who would not otherwise be able to pay for a medical degree. He provided $100 million in 2012 to start the scholarship fund. He is a longtime donor to UCLA, giving a total of $450 million.

The Philanthropy 50, now in its 20th year, bases its rankings on total giving by donors. The rankings include many gifts that have never previously been disclosed by philanthropists as well as publicly available information.

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