How an Industrial Family Fortune is Boosting Engineering at UW-Madison

Midwestern billionaire David W. Grainger just made the second huge donation to an engineering school in recent years, committing $25 million to University of Wisconsin-Madison to establish an interdisciplinary research center. The latest gift follows a $100 million grant in 2013. 

David Grainger is the son of long-deceased William W. Grainger, founder of the industrial supply company sharing his name. As of 2013, the octogenarian was worth about $1.2 billion as the largest shareholder of the company, which has seen its stock double since 2010.

The family’s Grainger Foundation, based in Illinois, was established in 1967, but it has existed in another form since 1949. The funder keeps a low profile, but has built up assets of nearly half a billion dollars. 

The foundation's latest large donation goes to David Grainger’s alma mater at Madison to establish the Grainger Institute for Engineering, a cross-disciplinary “incubator” for new research ideas that will employ 25 new faculty. It’s the largest gift the College of Engineering has received, and will likely put the already well-respected school high on the list of institutions breaking new ground in manufacturing and materials.

The school’s dean said the faculty at the center will hold appointments in multiple departments in an attempt to break down silos. The school will pursue new ideas in the manufacturing industry, but also energy, transportation, water and healthcare. Gifts for centers that draw faculty from multiple departments to strike new research paths are quite the trend these days in alumni giving.

Schools with a Grainger connection have fared well recently. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received a $100 million gift in 2013 for its own College of Engineering in memory of William W. Grainger, a graduate of the class of 1919. 

For its size and activity, the Grainger Foundation has very little formal structure. David Grainger has been the guiding force of the foundation since 1979, serving as president of a board of seven and no staff.

Putting aside the large gifts in recent years, the foundation still gives in the range of $20 million to $50 million a year. Large grants go to a mix of universities, hospitals and medical charities, museums, and other community and human services organizations. The foundation is not to be confused with the company Grainger’s CSR program, which has its own giving priorities.

UW-Madison College of Engineering Receives $25 million grant