Big Sky Giving: Behind This Venture Capitalist's Campus Give

A few months ago, I published a post on a philanthropic hullabaloo in the normally sleepy state of Montana, where an advocacy group called upon the Montana University System Board of Regents to refuse an $8 million gift to Montana State University from Greg Gianforte, the Republican gubernatorial candidate running against incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock.

I'm happy report to that not all gifts to Montana-based universities are plagued with such drama.

The University of Montana recently announced the largest gift in its history: a $24 million pledge from Phoenix venture capitalist Bill Franke and his family to benefit the school's College of Forestry and Global Leadership Initiative.

Before I take a closer look at the gift itself, I wanted to dive a bit deeper into Franke and his giving. It's a pretty big gift for a donor with a relatively low profile in the high-stakes philanthropy world.

First, the basics. Franke co-founded Indigo Partners, a Palo Alto-based investment firm focused on air transportation, including America West, Spirit, and Frontier Airlines. Back in 2013, the Wall Street Journal called Indigo's purchase of Frontier "a transaction that likely signals the expansion of the ultra-low-cost sector of the U.S. airline industry."

Franke's philanthropy, meanwhile, has traditionally focused on his two alma maters, Stanford and Northern Arizona University. In fact, the latter named its business school after Franke gave it a $25 million gift in 2007. Commenting on the gift, Franke expressed particular interest in "supporting first-generation and underrepresented students." 

At the time of the gift, the university listed Franke's charitable and civic bonafides: a member of the International Board of Barrow Neurological Institute, chairman of the St. Paul arts nonprofit COMPAS, member of the Dean’s Council, Arizona State University business college, and the Dean’s Circle, Stanford Law School.

Franke also has a long track record of supporting Arizona companies, including Southwest Forest Industries, Valley National Bank, Circle K Corporation and many others.

So after reading  about his most recent gift, I couldn't help but wonder: "Why Montana?"

According to university spokesperson Paula Short, the gift comes after "many years of a relationship between the Franke family and the University of Montana." Short said the Franke family is "looking forward to introducing themselves to the community and discussing the inspiration behind their gift" in the weeks to come.

Indeed, it isn't very often that a donor has to introduce himself to a school after cutting a huge check. Usually, a check of that size suggests no introduction is necessary. And so I'm curious about what, besides the "many years of a relationship" with the school compelled Franke to make his second huge university gift in nine years.

For an answer, we turn again to Short, who said that the Frankes "certainly have a passion for conservation of natural resources," which explains their desire to fund the College of Forestry and Conservation. Short's explanation checks out. During Mr. Franke’s business career, he was the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 forest products company, Southwest Forest Industries, Inc. (now Smurfit-Stone Container).

The University has proposed re-naming the College of Forestry and Conservation and the Global Leadership Initiative to honor the contribution of the Franke family.

"This truly is a transformational gift," Short says, "and the opportunities that it will bring for our faculty and for students at the University of Montana are going to be extraordinary."