CEOs Are Giving Back In Big Ways

Few CEOs have achieved their professional success without having gained a foundational college education. Some have gone on to earn post-graduate or doctoral degrees, while others achieved success through a different path. Whether these CEOs attended for 4 years or 4 weeks, earned straight As or passed by with Cs – the way that they’re giving back to their alma maters is making a huge impact on the schools that they attended!

Higher education institutions across the United States, couldn’t exist as we know them without the generosity of the donations they collect. These gifts enable schools to recruit and maintain top faculty, build state of the art facilities, and make education accessible to many students through scholarships who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of college.

Late in 2017, Austin McChord, CEO of Datto, gave a $50 Million gift to his alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Austin had recently made $1.5 Billion from the sale of his startup IT company. Within weeks he announced that he’d be donating $50 million to RIT, the largest donation in the school’s 189-year history. Interestingly, Austin barely earned his RIT degree.  He never thrived in the typical classroom environment, but he wanted to fund some creative learning methods at his alma mater. Austin said, “Higher education tends to have a pretty conservative way of thinking, and if I can be a little bit of an agitator for change then I think that’s a positive.” McChord´s eight-figure gift will certainly offer new approaches to education at RIT.

The former Chairman of Merck & Co., Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and his wife, Diana, are donating $250 million to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Vagelos was himself a scholarship student at the university in the 1950s, and this most recent gift is intended to eliminate the need for student loans for all of the college’s future medical students.

As a scholarship student at Columbia, Dr. Roy may have had a different academic experience than Mr. McChord did. Even with different educational expectations and challenges – both of these leaders appreciate the value of their respective college educations. Through engagement with their universities after graduation, they were able to witness the potential impact of their generosity.

CEOs Generously Supporting Their Alma Maters Isn’t New

Sanford Weill served as the CEO of Travelers group and later Citigroup Inc. This self-made billionaire is an alumnus of Cornell University, where he chaired the board of the Weill Cornell Medical College for 20 years. Sanford, along with his wife and their family foundation have given upwards of $550 Million to the school. Including a groundbreaking $100 Million gift in 1998 — at the time the largest in Cornell University’s history.

Mr. Weill and hundreds of CEOs before him have carried on the tradition of building an educated culture. This tradition continues with company and industry leaders today. While today’s leaders grew through widely varied areas of study, cultures and educational expectations – many of them share the desire to leave the world a better place. When these leaders continue to maintain a relationship with the colleges and universities that they attended, they are given opportunities to see how their investment can impact learners of today and the future generations.

What’s In It for Them?

These generous business leaders are undoubtedly making a significant impact on the schools that they’re donating to. But CEOs are seeing some personal benefits from their gifts too.  There are the tax deductions that come along with supporting non-profits, as well as opportunities to serve as advisors to school leaders – sometimes in official capacities on a board. It’s likely that CEOs making sizable donations are seeing the same bonus that hedge funds started to see when they began donating heavily to universities: closer ties with the students! That familiarity can give the CEOs and their respective companies a boost in recruiting talent from their alma maters.  

The Generous Support from CEOs is Great – But So Is the Momentum of Those Gifts

The schools that receive 7, 8 and 9 figure gifts from successful alumni are undoubtedly impacted by these transformational gifts! But there’s often a domino effect that follows these record-breaking gifts. Other alumni and philanthropists are attracted to make larger gifts when they learn that the college has received such a transformational donation. One large gift often spurs several other gifts that might not have been donated otherwise.

Who is Your University’s Next CEO?

Maybe it’s your school’s valedictorian, star football player or even the non-engaged student who will later become your school’s next big CEO.  We will never know unless we stay in contact with our next generation of leaders. Today’s learners are tomorrow’s young alumni, and today’s young alumni could be tomorrow’s CEOs. It’s up to our Alumni and Advancement Teams to maintain a relationship and keep track of who’s making strides toward the C suite!  


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Sources & Additional Reading

[1]   Tech CEO Austin McChord, CNCB.com

[2]   With $250 Million Gift, Columbia Medical School Looks to End Student Debt, NYTimes.com

[3]   Sanford Weill, Bloomberg.com

[4]   Sanford I. Weill Retires as Chair of the Weill Cornell Board of Overseers After 20 Years of Transformative Leadership, cornell.edu

[5]   Hedge funds – Financial Times, ft.com

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