The 10 Most Generous College Donations of All Time

For most of us, donating even a few hundred dollars to an alma mater is a pretty big financial commitment. Yet for some seriously successful grads that’s chump change, as they pay back colleges and universities for helping them succeed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, stock, or valuable items. In the past, these generous donations have helped do everything from start a new college to build state-of-the-art facilities for students and faculty to use and were undoubtedly much appreciated by the recipients. While there have been many generous donations to colleges over the years, we’ve highlighted here a few of the most amazingly philanthropic.

  1. $600 million, California Institute of Technology

    The largest individual donation ever made to a college or University in the U.S. came from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty in 2001. The very lucky California Institute of Technology received the donation in two parts, one directly from the Moores and one through their family foundation. Moore is a Caltech alum from the class of ’54, and he gave the gift to the school with the hope that it would help future generations of students work on interdisciplinary research. Moore said of his donation, “Caltech has a unique ability to do multidisciplinary work — partly because of its size and partly because of its history. It is described as being a national treasure and it certainly is. The education I received there has served me well. We are hoping this gift will position the institute well as it moves forward.” One can only imagine how much the unprecedented gift will help Caltech in the coming years.

  2. $300 million, Vanderbilt University

    In 1998, the Ingram Charitable Fund donated stock valued at more than $300 million to Vanderbilt University, which at the time was the largest gift ever given to an American college or university. Martha R. Ingram, chairwoman of Ingram Industries, a wholesale distribution company, put 20 million shares of a subsidiary company into a charitable fund with the stipulation that 40% of the income and assets of these stocks go to Vanderbilt. While the stocks’ value may have fluctuated in the tumultuous economic downturn, at the time it was given, it was worth $340 million. Why did she decide to make such a generous donation? Ingram’s father was a trustee, as was her husband, and three of their four children graduated from Vanderbilt, giving the family a long connection with the school.

  3. $295 million, Emory University

    Emory University received an enormously generous gift in 1996 through the Lettie Pate Evans, Joseph B. Whitehead, and Robert W. Woodruff Foundations. The gift, an endowment funded by stock, was intended to benefit the university’s Woodruff Health Center. This wasn’t the first big donation from the Woodruff family, however. In 1979, Robert Woodruff, former CEO of Coca-Cola, and his brother George gave the school $109 million, the first nine-figure donation to an institution of higher education. Woodruff’s generosity didn’t stop with either of these huge donations, and in 2006 his foundation gave the school another $261.5 million, allowing them to renovate and replace much of the school’s medical campus.

  4. $240 million, University of California at San Francisco

    The Larry L. Hillblom Foundation was established in 1998 with $240 million in stock, land, and other assets to be used for medical research at UCSF and to support other charities on campus. The donation came from co-founder of DHL Larry Hillblom’s massive fortune, but there were some unexpected strings attached to this alumnus’ gift. After Hillblom’s death, it was learned that he fathered several children with women in Asia, and much of the money was tied up in litigation for years while the details were being figured out in court. Eventually, each of Hillblom’s five children did receive money from his estate, but so did the foundation, allowing the UC system to build several world-class medical facilities and fund cutting-edge research on campus and throughout the state.

  5. $200 million, University of Southern California

    California schools have received some pretty amazing gifts throughout the years, including this sizable donation from Dana and David Dornsife. The donation was in the form of an unrestricted endowment, so the school can decide how they want to spend the money with no strings attached. The Dornsifes had been donors in the past as well, helping support the school’s Brain and Creativity Institute and the neuroscience program. David Dornsife is an alumnus of the school and currently serves as a trustee. The school has received some other pretty big donations in recent years as well, including a whopping $175 million from famous director George Lucas to fund a new building for the School of Cinematic Arts.

  6. $200 million to $460 million, Olin College

    It isn’t every day that a new college opens its doors, but a hefty donation from Franklin W. Olin Foundation in 1997 allowed that very thing to happen. Olin established the F.W. Olin Foundation in 1938 with the goal of helping support higher education, and $200 million from the foundation went toward helping this namesake school get started, with the foundation offering up another $260 million in an endowment to keep the school running in future years. With the help of this enormous donation, Olin College was able to open its doors in 2002 and offers top-notch engineering education to worthy students at little to no cost to them. The foundation has also given substantial gifts to numerous other colleges around the U.S. including $50 million to the Florida Institute of Technology and $30 million to Babson College.

  7. $150 million, Stanford University

    Netscape founder Jim Clark, a former professor at Stanford, felt he wanted to give something back to the school as a thank you for helping him to become a Silicon Valley mogul. It was while he was working at Stanford that Clark first developed a computer chip that would help propel him into the business world, working at Silicon Graphics, Netscape, WebMD, and many other tech ventures. In 1999, Clark gave the school a donation of $150 million to build a biomedical engineering building and fund biomedical research on campus. He has noted that he hopes that the money will also help to convince Stanford to let researchers and professors take a bigger share of the profits from their inventions and discoveries, as the more generous terms that existed when he was on staff helped him greatly in his career.

  8. $144 million to $200 million, Polytechnic University

    Former Polytechnic professor Donald Othmer and his wife gave a very generous donation to his former employer, one of the largest to ever come from a former faculty member. The Othmer’s had already donated $30 million to the school in previous years as well as making many other smaller donations. Othmer made good money through the nearly 40 patents he developed during his lifetime, as well as the book he helped write called the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Engineering, but the bulk of his fortune came from shares held in Warren Buffett’s (an Othmer family friend) company Berkshire Hathaway.

  9. $128 million, DePauw University

    In August of 1999, DePauw University in Indiana received a large donation of stock from the estate of two former students, neither of whom ever actually graduated from the university. Philip Holton and Ruth Clark met at DePauw in 1925 and would leave the school two years later, one to transfer to U of I and one to be with the other. The Holtons had no living children to leave their fortune to as their only daughter passed away at 38, and decided instead to establish a trust for the school to give scholarships to deserving students in the Midwest. The school estimates that the generous donation will allow them to give 75 scholarships a year, an amazing gift not only for the university but also for needy students.

  10. $125 million to $500 million, New York University

    While most of the gifts on this list have been in the form of cash, Sir Harold Acton’s donation wasn’t entirely in liquid assets. Acton left the school a sizable $25 million in cash on his death, but the real value of his donation was in a 57-acre Italian estate (complete with a 15th-century Medici villa) and an amazing collection of Renaissance art and rare books. The value of the art and land Acton willed to NYU was estimated to be around $470 million dollars in 2003 and may be even more valuable today.

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