The Best Money If U Can Get It: Why This Alum Made a Big Gift With Few Strings Attached

Our higher education giving stories typically involve gifts toward specific programs, the construction of particular buildings and institutes, and toward certain scholarships. Whether it's a conservationist giving big to protect land on a liberal arts college, or a mega-donor helping to establish a scholarship program for aspiring welders in North Dakota, this kind of giving often entails funds that are earmarked for specified purposes.

So we're always intrigued when we come across the uncommon cases in which a college or university is handed a bunch of money to spend as they please. How do these gifts come about? And what exactly is the profile of a donor who doesn't attach lots of strings to their money?

Well, consider the recent case of a $50 million gift to California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from alumnus Ronald Linde and his wife Maxine. The $50 million will go toward an endowment at Caltech. But here's the catch: Besides the proviso that the gift should fund "promising initiatives" at the school, where these funds may end up, exactly, is unspecified. Obviously, this allows a lot more flexibility for Caltech, a top research university that's always launching ambitious projects and could use a fatter piggy bank. Linde and Maxine, long-time scientists, clearly get all that, saying their gift "allows for flexibility because you can't know the future... and science is about exploring the unknown."

That trusting sentiment would be music to the ears of any top university official, and we bet there were some champagne corks popped at Caltech. But how, exactly, do a school and a donor achieve this kind of relationship?

One obvious part of the equation might be a donor with long and deep ties with the school. The Lindes' connection with Caltech dates back at least half a century. Linde got both his master's degrees in 1962 and his Ph.D. in 1964 from Caltech. As well, mathematician Maxine worked as a scientific programmer at the Caltech-managed Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the inaugural years of the U.S. space program.

But alumni loyalty is only part of the equation. After all, the fact that the Lindes have such close ties to the school might suggest giving that's more specific and targeted. For example, I recently wrote about two separate gifts by career businesspeople to help bolster a business school they attended.

And here's where more backstory come in handy. A look at the Lindes' philanthropic history at Caltech reveals that the couple has given over $30 million to the school over the years, with outfits that bear their name including the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, Linde + Robinson Laboratory, and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences. The Lindes have spread their money around over the years for specific projects, so perhaps there's more latitude with this latest gift because the Lindes have already made their priority investments.

Clearly, the Lindes have a history at Caltech and they've been satisfied with how their money has been used, whether the gifts were specific or not. As Linde says: "Our giving is not just a matter of loyalty... we measure the success of our philanthropic investments by the impact achieved per dollar spent. Caltech's long track record speaks for itself. A dollar invested in Caltech can provide unparalleled returns."

Of course, that comment underscores a point we can't stress enough: There are few better candidates for big gifts tomorrow than donors happy with how yesterday's gifts were used. 

A final point: It's worth noting how long the Lindes have been part of Caltech brass as well. Linde was elected to Caltech's board of trustees in 1989 and is currently vice chair of Caltech's board of trustees. Linde serves on a total of eight committees and subcommittees of the board. That points to another familiar moral to this story: Donors who are helping run a school are more likely to trust that their money will be well spent.