Why Donors Give Big for Campus Research: A $50 Million Case Study at USC

There've been some really big gifts towards biomedical research lately. I recently wrote about a $92 million gift by an alum to Northwestern to construct a research center that covers everything from neurodegenerative disorders to heart disease. Now this: University of Southern California alumnus Mark Stevens and his wife Mary recently gave USC $50 million to endow and name the Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute. The research hub aims to foster the "translation of basic research into new therapies, preventions and cures for brain injury and disease, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury." 

We could name various other examples of campus gifts for biomedical research in the past year. This area has long been promising terrain for university fundraisers, but now the gifts are coming faster and the numbers are getting bigger.

That's true for a few reasons. First, when wealthy people start thinking about their legacies, few prospects are as exciting as fostering medical breakthroughs that could reduce suffering and save lives. Second, these health issues are often personal, involving a loved one that might have been saved along the line if effective treatments had existed. Third, this is a very exciting time in biomedical research, with university researchers hot on the trail of various kinds of discoveriesmomentum that can get donors jazzed, especially if they get to know the researchers personally. Fourth, biomedical research can be a driver of economic growth in a city or region, and some donors get excited about boosting both a university and a metro area. 

Okay, so that's the big picture behind a cascade of large campus research gifts. But how exactly do these gifts come together? We've been keeping a close eye on those dynamics, too. 

Alumni loyalty often plays a role, as you might expect, and that seems true with Mark Stevens in particular, because of his background. He grew up in a middle class home not too far from University of Southern California in Culver City, and worked his first job at a Jack in the Box in in his teens. He financed his undergraduate time at USC with a combination of merit scholarships and savings from work. Stevens also has a masters from USC. In short, the university loomed large in shaping Stevens' life, but also through its influence on the area where he grew up. 

Stevens went on to get an MBA from Harvard before going to work for Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley, where he became a billionaire. Funders with this kind of background might be especially keen on giving back to their institutions later on, supporting kids from similar backgrounds that they can relate to. This definitely seems to be the case for Stevens, who with Mary gave $22 million to USC's Viterbi School of Engineering in 2004, along with other donations over the years. As we often say, past giving leads to more giving. 

But more than that, outside of USC, most of the couple's philanthropy to date has homed in on higher education. The Stevenses say as much in their Giving Pledge letter: "Our focus in the past ten years or so has been supporting our college and high school alma maters and our children’s schools." Mary's alma mater Santa Clara University, received $7 million to build a student activity center, among other gifts. As well, the couple has funded scholarships at the school.

Another component here appears to be timing. The initial phase of the couple's philanthropy focused mainly on education, but of late the couple has been wading into health. Why? Well, Stevens' father has Alzheimer's and one of the couple's sons has dyslexia. As I said earlier, medical philanthropy is often very personal.

Back in 2013, in fact, Stevens and Mary gave $1.5 million to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) toward a cancer research center named in memory of their late friend, Father Paul Locatelli, S.J.

As for this latest $50 million gift, the fact that the couple is now focusing on neuroscience definitely has some personal elements involved, not just alumni loyalty.

Let me also mention former USC professor turned USC President C.L. Max Nikias, who has fostered a decades-long friendship with Stevens. They both have engineering backgrounds (Stevens earned a degree in engineering from USC in 1981), and back in the 1990s, Nikias (still a professor at the time), sought out seed money from Stevens to start an institute on digital media. The two remained in touch, and during a conversation last summer, President Nikias mentioned the brain work at USC to Stevens.

What's so exciting about this research is that USC researchers Drs. Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson are leading a team of 130 who are "pioneering work that uses increasingly large data sets in brain imaging and genetics as a digital blueprint for the revolution in personalized and precision medicine." The team has amassed the world's largest repository of "healthy and diseased brain images, along with medical and genetic data from diverse populations around the world."

Stevens was interested, as you might imagine, and met the scientists—often a key step in cultivation, as I said before—and the rest is history. USC says that the research "unlocking the mysteries of the brain, accelerated by this historic gift, will have a powerful impact on millions of people worldwide."

Maybe there's some hype in there, but still. If you had fifty million bucks to spare, the possibility of improving innumerable lives would be a powerful reason to part with that cash. 

One final note on this case. Yesterday, a full-page ad appeared on the back page of the first section of the New York Times, heralding the gift. (The quotes above come from the ad.) We don't see that every day. In fact, we can't think of another example of such big moneyprobably over $100,000being spent to tout a university gift. 

Why the ad? Our guess is that USC wants more respect in elite circles. The school's been on a huge roll lately, becoming a magnet for big money and top research talent. But many people probably still think of USC as a second-rate regional university. Well, that's changing, and donors like Stevens are a key reason why.

Related - Campus Cash: Medical Research