Got Celeb Alums? Here's the Takeaway From That Barbara Walters Gift to Sarah Lawrence

Television veteran and journalist Barbara Walters recently donated $15 million to her alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts college just outside of New York City. The gift will help construct the Barbara Walters Campus Center, which will include spaces for events, dining, and social activities.

In addition to being the largest donation the college has ever received, it's likely Walters' highest donation as well. In the past, Walters has given to New York arts and cultural institutions such as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Met. The gift is through Walters' trust, though there isn't much information about that entity.

Before we dig into some of the lessons here, which involve alumni loyalty and previous giving to her alma mater, there's one thing I want to emphasize right off the bat: timing.

Last year, Walters retired from her gig on the popular ABC television show The View. Around that time, she also attended Sarah Lawrence's commencement ceremony, only she wasn't scheduled to deliver the keynote address to bright-eyed young people. Rather, another media mogul, Fareed Zakaria, did the honors. However, Walters dropped by and imparted her wisdom as well by gifting a trove of papers, recordings and photos from her some five decades in journalism.

Talk about a homecoming.

Walters has referenced her school a number of times on The View and elsewhere, clearly still appreciative of the education and experiences she received while at Sarah Lawrence. She's said that "when I donated my archives to Sarah Lawrence last year, I told the graduating class at commencement that at Sarah Lawrence I learned to ask questions. I attribute my success, in many ways, to the curiosity and confidence I came away with from this remarkable college."

But this story doesn't just involve Walters' most recent impact on her college. Back in 2002, Walters gave $1 million to Sarah Lawrence, helping to construct the Barbara Walters Gallery, which has been housed within the Heimbold Visual Arts Center. At that time, the $1 million gift was also the largest donation she's ever made. Now she's seriously outdone herself with the $15 million gift.

We often note that past giving can lead to future giving. In this case, Walters' philanthropic trail included a gift of important items from her long career. The fact that all of this is taking place on the heels of Walters' retirement is also worth reiterating. This is often the case with philanthropy—a farewell from business, any business, can often spell an uptick in giving. Lucky for Sarah Lawrence, it has a high-profile alumna committed to the school. Which reminds us, there's likely similar cases of these kinds of alum at many other colleges across the country.

In addition to lounges and dining facilities, the new Barbara Walters Campus Center will also house a college radio station, a media lab and the career services office. Appropriately, the Barbara Walters Gallery will move there as well.

One last point: We don't often think of media and entertainment stars (e.g., the "talent") as having the kind of big money that successful entrepreneurs or business moguls do. And generally that's right: these people are not billionaires, say. But in the past decade or two, pay has skyrocketed for the talent and so more of these figures have piled up substantial fortunes. For example, Barbara Walters' net worth has been estimated at $150 million. And now that's she at the end of her career, she's no doubt thinking about how some of that money can bolster her legacy. It's giving back time. 

Colleges that have celebrity alums may have a hard time getting their attention and money during the prime of their careers. But later, as the spotlight fades, some very big gifts may be possible.