How the ExxonMobil Foundation Approaches Higher Ed Funding

Besides being one of the world’s largest publicly traded corporations, ExxonMobil is also one of the world’s most polarizing, and this can also apply to the company’s philanthropic arm, the ExxonMobil Foundation.

Critics of ExxonMobil will point to the company’s funding of organizations that deny global climate change, such as the Atlas Energy Research Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and Pacific Research Institute. Defenders, meanwhile, can point to the activities of the ExxonMobil Foundation to fight malaria and improve employment opportunities for women.

Whatever side of the divide you're on, it is clear that in addition to its other funding activities, ExxonMobil puts its considerable weight behind a range of higher education programs and projects—to the tune of millions of dollars a year. 

Many of these grants are of the sort you would expect from a company that depends on men and women with knowledge of math and science to fill its workforce needs. In short, STEM-related education and outreach programs are big favorites of this funder. The foundation has supported the National Academies Foundation’s academies of engineering, for example. It also has supported programs designed to boost student access to higher education, such as the District of Columbia College Access Program. 

More significantly, ExxonMobil Foundation has combined its interest in STEM higher education with attempts to reach out to underrepresented student populations, similar to other funders interested in college access and higher education.

Related - ExxonMobil Foundation: Grants for Science Education

The funder has supported the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (more than $1.2 million between 2011 and 2013) and the Society of Women Engineers ($750,000 for K-12 outreach between 2011 and 2014). 

I should pause here to make a point I've made before: If you're interested in landing STEM funding for your college, think about ways you can pull a more diverse array of students into these subjects and connect up STEM to your school's diversity agenda. 

Related: Seven Ways Any College Can Get In On the STEM Gold Rush

ExxonMobil has awarded grants to individual colleges and universities, as well. Just ask Spelman College in Atlanta, the respected, historically black institution in Atlanta, which received $1 million toward engineering scholarships. Johns Hopkins University is another recipient. ExxonMobil Foundation gave the university’s School for Advanced International Studies $200,000.

The foundation's big focus on the economic empowerment of women may also offer some pathways to funding for higher ed institutions, even if much of this work is focused on developing countries. For example, one of the foundation's partners in this realm has been the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School. As well, the foundation and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women recently partnered with Michigan State University to measure the impact of an award-winning mobile service for women entrepreneurs, called Business Women.

By far, the largest pots of money related to the foundation are the Mobil Retiree Matching Gifts and the Educational Matching Gifts programs, which provided $30 million to higher education. Under these programs, ExxonMobil matches the contributions of its employees and retirees on a 3:1 basis.

That program reflects the importance to ExxonMobile, like a great many other corporate funders, of engaging its people in giving. So connecting to someone working for the company could be a great way to get the ball rolling with this funder. 

Critics and defenders alike are free to disagree on the merits or demerits of ExxonMobil’s approach to philanthropy when it comes to the environment and other causes. There is, however, little doubt that this funder has put its considerable resources behind institutions of higher education across the country, as well as programs to boost interest in STEM careers and education among African Americans, Hispanics, and women.