Dept. of That's No Typo: The Unlikely Donor Behind a Historic Campus Gift

Philanthropy, to paraphrase an overwrought adage, is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. Recent news out of Southern California corroborates this theory.

Normally when we stumble upon a grant totaling a massive $60 million dollars, we can make reasonable assumptions surrounding the donor. Hedge fund guy. Entertainment mogul. Silicon Valley type. We also can make reasonable assumptions about where the $60 million is going. Medical research. Green energy. A business school. Heck, even classical music scholarships.

So you can see why I (almost) spit out my caramel macchiato onto my iPad screen when reading that the University of Southern California (U.S.C) just received a whopping $60 million for its—wait for it—school of social work.

The donor is alumni Suzanne Dworak-Peck and the gift will endow and name the U.S.C. Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, "cementing its standing as one of the world’s most innovative institutions within the discipline and strengthening its renowned educational and research programs," according to the U.S.C. press release. Needless to say, the gift is one of the largest contributions from an individual to a school of its kind.

The Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is one of the largest schools of social work in the nation. It educates one of every 20 master's-level social workers in the United States and has an alumni network of 15,000. The school is also pretty influential, with its experts often weighing in on a range of social issues. 

Now it's likely to expand its footprint and impact even further. Or at least, that's the hope. 

"My wish is that this endowment will create greater awareness and understanding for the local, national and global community about the profound impact of the social work profession," she said. "By educating and building professional social workers who are visionary game changers, we are investing in solutions to society’s significant problems, like homelessness and poverty."

The gift continues an impressive philanthropic hot streak for the school, including a $15 million pledge in June from trustee David C. Bohnett to endow and name a residential college at USC Village.

And what about Ms. Dworak-Peck? She received her Masters in Social Work in 1967 and has been a pioneer in the field ever since. She has served as president of both the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the organization's California chapter. During her tenure, she strengthened the NASW’s role in international social work, particularly its relationship with the International Federation of Social Workers, an organization representing social workers in more than 100 countries. She also served as president of that organization and is currently its first, and only, ambassador.

There's more, too. Dworak-Peck's CV is extensive

"That's all well and good," you're probably thinking. "But $60 million?

For an answer as to how this fortune came to be, the U.S.C. press release simply notes that Dworak-Peck's "investments have enabled her to make this generous gift." Right, but where did the money for those investments come from in the first place? Nobody is saying.

Regardless, this episode reminds us a bit of how another quasi-celebrity academic-turned-donor, Larry Sabato, explained his recent donation to the University of Virginia by saying, "I simply saved a lot and I invested."

Perhaps a donor can cut a check to require all undergrads to take a course on the beauty of compounded interest.