A Closer Look at the Mother of All Matching Gifts

Phil Knight issued a $1 billion challenge to Oregon Health Science University in 2013. The deal was, if the university could raise $500 million for the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU, he would match it dollar for dollar, giving the school a potential $1 billion windfall for cancer research. That was, of course, if it could raise that half billion within two years. Well OHSU raised that money in 22 months, just shy of its two-year deadline.

A challenge of $1 billion proportions was not without its concerns. Last year, a few OHSU faculty members drafted a statement to the university’s administration laying out their fears that education and basic science would become collateral damage in the pursuit of such a huge gift. Others voiced concern that going after Knight’s money would undermine other funding and research priorities at the school.

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Whether the school considered that those concerns were warranted or not, OHSU did pursue Knight’s $1 billion challenge, and according to Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, it’s the largest pledge in documented history to actually succeed.

So how did OHSU do it? And what’s the money being used for?

The state of Oregon gave the biggest lift, with a $200 million infrastructure investment in the school's transformational cancer research and clinical trial buildings. Gert Boyle, chair of Columbia Sportswear, threw in for another $100 million. The remaining $200 million came from thousands of donors in every state—including individuals, corporations and NGOS—in the U.S. and five other countries.

The money will support a large-scale research program that is specifically dedicated to the early detection of lethal cancers. To accomplish that, OHSU will use part of the funds to fast track the recruitment of the top 25 or so cancer researchers in the world, who will then hire an army of around 2225 to 275 investigators who will focus on cancer detection. And those investigators will not be spending a great deal of time securing grants for their research work. Instead, they will reportedly be given “substantial financial support so they can focus on discovery.”

The apples of Phil Knight’s funding eye are, not surprisingly, sports, cancer, and business. Between 1995 and 2005, he gave some $230 million to University of Oregon athletics and in 2007, he and his wife Penny gifted another $100 million to the University of Oregon’s Athletics Legacy Fund in 2007.

Knight has also funded other efforts, such as the construction of the Knight Building at Stanford’s School of Business, and he gave the school an additional $100 million to support an institute dedicated to entrepreneurship in developing countries. More recently, Knight gave Oregon Health & Science University $125 million to establish the Knight Cardiovascular Institute.

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Regardless of where Knight’s money goes, the common thread in his giving is his personal connection to the causes. Sports and business are where he made his money; he earned his undergrad at the University of Oregon and his MBA from Stanford, and Oregon is home state. As far as his connection with cancer, he shared in a recent interview that “My father died of leukemia, and my beloved aunt died of breast cancer. So… I think cancer can touch everyone.”