William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation: Grants for Higher Education


OVERVIEW: William K. Bowes, Jr., is an extremely wealthy, San Francisco-based venture capitalist. A big part of his foundation's funding goes to medical research, and organizations based in California tend to receive favor. Universities have benefited from significant Bowes funding for research into a wide range of diseases.

IP TAKE:  The Bowes Foundation has a very low profile; unsolicited proposals and letters of inquiry are not accepted. Selection and research of grant recipients is done almost entirely out of the public eye by a small staff and Bowes himself, who has strong personal involvement in deciding what's funded.

PROFILE: William “Bill” Bowes, Jr., is one of the country's richest men. Thanks to some smart investments, his net worth at one point was estimated at around $900 million. His foundation is similarly imposing, recently declaring almost more $350 million in assets and giving nearly $40 million in grants a recent year.

Bowes is a serious philanthropist. But he's also very modest and shirks publicity whenever possible. So not surprisingly, his private foundation is extremely low-key. It has a one-page website with little information, five part-time staff, and one trustee besides Bowes himself. Its only public guidelines state that it "supports nonprofit organizations in several areas including (but not exclusively) medical research, access to college, the arts, and higher education."

For higher ed grant seekers, two key areas of interest are stem cell research for the cure and treatment of deadly diseases - especially cancer.

Along those lines, California research universities have long been a clear draw for Bowes's support. For example, Stanford University's Bio-X fellowship has received about $1.5 million on a regular basis. Bowes has also sunk at least $7 million into the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (he sits on the board of overseers of the UCSF Foundation), in addition to support for UC Berkeley (site of the Bowes Research Fellows Program) and UC Santa Barbara. The California Institute of Technology received $5 million in one recent year to endow a leadership chair to "support innovative research projects with potential for scientific and societal impact."

While support for universities outside the Golden State is much less common, they are not entirely left out in the cold. The University of Colorado Boulder, for example, recently received $500,000 to support endowed chairs at its Biofrontiers Institute. Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute has received significant support.

Support for higher ed initiatives outside of the key areas mentioned above is less common, but not out of the question. For example, the foundation recently gave $400,000 to Harvard University’s Art Museums for museum construction and $200,000 to Sonoma State University for a “Green Music Center.”

The Bowes Foundation hasn't just given to colleges and universities. Bowes is also interested in youth education, having supported outfits such as Teach for America, Teach for All, KIPP Bay Area Schools, College Spring, and Real Options for City Kids, among others.

Unfortunately, an uninvited proposal won't do you any good. In terms of decision making, the board does all its own selection and research on the organizations that it funds.

Program Officer Mary Gregory notes, however, that strong leadership is a common factor in all of the foundation's grantees, stating, "Mr. Bowes approaches grantmaking as he did companies in his venture capital career, and probably looks for the same financial and leadership strengths you'd look for in a company."


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