When Big Gifts Go To Campus Scholarships, It's Worth Taking a Closer Look

The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently announced a $50 million gift from alumni couple Albert and Nancy Nicholas to support scholarships and fellowships at the school. The gift is actually a challenge gift, and will be used to "match, on a one-to-one basis, gifts that support undergraduate and athletic scholarships and graduate fellowships"

Such big money for scholarships isn't something we see every day. We wrote about a big $60 million gift to Juilliard for scholarships by billionaire Bruce Kovner and his wife a few years ago. I also wrote about an alumni couple, Richard and Virginia Hunsaker, who gave $35 million to fund scholarships at University of Redlands in Southern California. 

Related: Meet the Couple That Wants to Put Their Alma Mater on the Map

In general, though, scholarships don't have the sex appeal of other kinds of campus gifts. Donors often get more excited about, say, funding a big push for scientific breakthroughs or putting up a new building on campus or establishing a new center to study a hot subject. 

So whenever we do see big scholarship gifts, it's worth looking closely at the forces at work. Let's dig in. 

First, in that Redlands gift I wrote about, I noted that Virginia Hunsaker went to Redlands on a scholarship. This is sometimes the case with these kinds of gifts, and a donor's own college scholarhip experience often makes him or her keen on helping future generations of students. In the case of Nicholas and Nancy, Illinois-based Nicholas attended the University of Wisconsin on a scholarship, earning his bachelor's and his M.B.A. from the school. 

Nicholas was a basketball star at Wisconsin, which explains the athletic scholarship component of the gift. After graduating with an M.B.A. from Wisconsin in 1955, Nicholas went on to work as a money manager, and later founded the Nicholas Company.

Gratitude is often a key factor in philanthropy, and the fact that Nicholas got his start at Wisconsin with the help of a scholarship is important.

What's more, Nicholas and Nancy met on campus. Additionally, Nancy's parents met on campus, and three of the couple's kids, as well as six of their grandchildren, have attended the University of Wisconsin. It's safe to say that the Nicholases are Badgers through and through. As we often note, multi-generational loyalty can be a major factor in campus gifts. Remember: Money going to charity is money that's not going to the kids, so family giving decisions will ideally sit well with all involved. That's more likely to be the case for a campus gift when everyone shares the same alma mater. 

Nicholas and Nancy's philanthropy also prioritizes the state of Wisconsin, and their Ab Nicholas Scholarship Foundation, provides scholarships to Wisconsin high school basketball players who go on to attend any University of Wisconsin school. Past philanthropy at the University of Wisconsin has involved the Wisconsin School of Business, the School of Human Ecology, and the athletic department.

It might also be worth reiterating that Nicholas was a basketball star while at Wisconsin, one of seven players in the school's history to earn All Big Ten honors twice. I'm mentioning this again because athletics provides one of the best ways to keep a donor in a school's orbit. This is especially true of a school like the University of Wisconsin, which is almost annually involved in March Madness and other sports competitions, with a huge trail of current students and alums supporting them all along the way. And Nicholas has particularly close ties to the team.