Can a University-Owned Fossil Park Become a "World-Class Destination?" This Donor Thinks So

If you read IP closely, you'll come across dozens of posts looking at alumni cutting huge checks to his or her alma mater. You'll also see seemingly countless examples of wealthy donors supporting museums.

Ric and Jean Edelman's $25 million gift to Rowan University's Fossil Park generally stick to this script, but with a few rather intriguing twists. In fact, a deeper analysis of this gift sheds some interesting light on how trends in arts philanthropy can co-mingle while simultaneously providing a window into the thinking of a contrarian donor.

But first the facts.

Rowan University alumni Ric and Jean Edelman, who founded Edelman Financial Services in 1987, earmarked the gift to transform the school's Fossil Park into an educational attraction that "draws visitors from around the world." It marks the second largest gift in the school's history, as well as the largest ever donated by any alumni and the third largest donation to a public university in New Jersey.

If the spirit of this gift feels familiar, it should. In the philanthropic arts space, we call it the Bilbao Effect. It is the driving force of the nonprofit museum fundraising world, and as recently noted, is increasingly encroaching into the university space as well.

After all, its logic is infinitely scalable. If a big, glamorous wing can attract new visitors in New York City, who's to say the same phenomenon won't apply in Peoria, or in this case, Gloucester County, New Jersey? (For analysis as to why this theory is, in fact, somewhat specious, click here and here.)

Then again, Edelman's gift to Rowan doesn't perfectly fit the aforementioned narrative. For starters, Fossil Park isn't your typical museum. It almost sounds like a Disney Land. When the newly renamed Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park opens in 2020, it will include a museum and visitor center that will use virtual and augmented reality technology, a fossil preparation lab, nature trails, and a "paleontology playground."

Now at this point, you may be asking, "Weird. A huge quasi-amusement park/museum on a university campus? That's pretty odd." And indeed, that would be odd if it were true. The park, in fact, is located seven miles from Rowan's campus. The school purchased the 65-acre park, currently tucked behind a Lowes home improvement store in nearby Mantua, from the Inversand Co. in January of 2016 for $1.95 million.

This is an important point for two reasons. One, it underscores the fact that universities are getting increasingly creative in terms of accumulating assets. For example, I recently looked at how American University was given a nearby conference venue, known as the Airlie Center, in a donation valued at around $15 million.

Secondly, Rowan's purchase of the park suggests that a certain kind of donor may willing to reward such out-of-the-box thinking.

Which bring us, at long last, to Ric Edelman.

As you'll see here, he has a pretty extensive philanthropic CV, which includes, among other things, supporting the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, Make-a-Wish Foundation, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He's also a best-selling author and award-winning educator.

Since Edelman's area of expertise is financial investment, I was doubly intrigued when I came across the motivating factors behind his gift. 

"We're not really fans of placing money into an endowment and letting it sit there," said Edelman, who graduated in 1980 with a degree in communications. Now I'm pretty sure that Edelman, as a financial expert, understands the concept of appreciation. Nonetheless, he's clearly more interested in immediate and tangible results, namely, "something that will create genuine impact for students, adults and the community...We want the Fossil Park to be a world-class destination on the same scale as the Smithsonian," he said. 

Which bring us, finally, to the last philanthropic trend embedded in this unique gift: STEM education. The overarching goal with the park is to engage students with "STEM career paths at a young age to build the next generation of innovation."

"If we're going to remain competitive in a global economy, we need to produce more scientists and engineers," said Edelman.