Behind a Poetry Gift: Alumni Loyalty Still Matters, Even When a Funder Is Into a Lot

Georgetown University recently received a $4 million gift from alumnus J. Patrick Lannan and the Lannan Foundation to endow the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Lannan graduated from Georgetown in 1960. Unlike some of the other higher education gifts I've recently covered, for instance a huge gift to Northwestern by an alum who was introduced to innovative science research, Lannan's interest in the arts runs deep. 

Lannan's father, J. Patrick Lannan Sr., was an entrepreneur and financier, who founded the Lannan Foundation in 1960. Since the foundation's beginnings, Lannan has been a major supporter of visual and literary art and is “dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity and creativity.” Lannan supports “exceptional” contemporary artists and writers, as well as Native American activists working in “rural indigenous communities.” The younger Lannan began helming the foundation in the 1980s after his father passed.

OK, so given all of this, it's not too much of a surprise that Lannan would support the arts at his alma mater. In fact, the description of the Lannan Center and its interdisciplinary emphasis on "literary practice," "economic and social justice," and "environmental activism" is consistent with a philanthropic history which spans more than half a century.

On the other hand, given all that Lannan has been into over the years, there might be important lesson here about how an alum's alma mater can stand out on an already crowded radar. Let me explain.

When Lannan Jr. took over the reins of the foundation, it was infused with a substantial endowment from his father's estate. At the helm of a beefed up foundation, Lannan returned to Georgetown and in 1989 created the beginnings of the center with a poetry series. Over the years, Lannan continued to refine its goals, with such efforts as the annual Lannan Symposium, Graduate Fellowship, and the Visiting Writer-in-Residence and Distinguished Reader series.

As we often say at IP, past giving often predicts future giving. This sometimes happens in an escalating fashion, where a funder, happy with the way their money is being spent, doubles down, and expands and refines an earlier effort. In that Northwestern story, a smaller prior gift led to a nearly $100 million gift to create an extensive 12-story research center. In that Barbara Walters gift I wrote about, meanwhile, an initial donation of Walters' archives, led to a $15 million gift to establish campus center in which those archives would be contained.

In Lannan's case, what began as a poetry series is now a full-fledged center focused on poetry. (In a way, there's a symmetry to all this, or better yet a poetry—sorry, I had to).

Another element to this story might involve timing. The Lannan Foundation has had a similar aims since it was first founded. But it's important to note that when the younger Lannan took over, he brought his own history and interests to the table. Clearly that included giving back to his alma mater Georgetown.