A Bid for Greatness: Behind a Public University's Historic $500 Million Windfall

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has never enjoyed the luster of its sister institutions UC Berkeley and UCLA. But lately, it's been on a fundraising roll. In 2015, it was No. 4 among universities in fundraising, pulling in over $600 million in gifts.

Now, UCSF has announced it received a staggering $500 million donation from the Hellen Diller Foundation, the largest in the school's history. Indeed, the gift is among the largest ever made to any university. It's bigger, for example, than John Paulson's $400 million gift to Harvard University that caused such a stir a while back. And equal to Phil Knight's recent gift to the University of Oregon. 

The Diller gift to UCSF and the Knight gift to UO actually share some similarities. In both cases, the goal seems to be vaulting lower-profile public schools into the top tier of U.S. research universities by providing support on a truly game-changing level. Like UO, UCSF is already a leader in some key areas, starting with biomedical research. It's the top public recipient of NIH dollars and it's been the scene of any number of important breakthroughs. It also has one of the top ranked medical schools in the country, as well as one of the top hospitals.

Despite these strengths, though, UCSF still doesn't make the overall lists of top U.S. research universities in the country. This windfall of wealth should help change that. A fifth of the Diller gift, for example, will create distinguished professorships—with the kinds of salaries and perks that can lure star faculty from other institutions. Another $100 million will establish the Helen Diller Faculty Scholars program supporting early- and mid-career scientists with at least $150,000 annually. That's also money at a level that can lure talent from elsewhere. 

The quest by UCSF to become a world-class university across the board makes a lot of sense, given where it's located, and many donors—from the Bay Area and beyond—have already been drawn to the school for its existing strengths. Much of the big money it's recently pulled in has been for science research, with UCSF on the cutting edge of neuroscience research. In 2015, the school landed a $100 million gift from Charles F. “Chuck” Feeney to support UCSF's Mission Bay hospitals, faculty and students, and research programs focused on the neurosciences and aging. A year later, it pulled in $185 million from Sandy and Joan Weill to create the Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Also last year, UCSF became one of three partner universities (with Berkeley and Stanford) involved in the $3 billion Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to eliminate all diseases.  

Other recent gifts to the school include—but are certainly not limited to—$4.5 million from Sean Parker to UCSF's Malaria Elimination Initiative and Bill Bowes's $50 million pledge to provide a five-year funding stream of $250,000 per year to early- and mid-career faculty members. (Yet another pot of money to lure stars.) Marc and Lynne Benioff have also given UCSF $200 million for its medical centers; Ron Conway and his family have given $40 million. 

Helen Diller is not a name that will ring a bell for many people—unless they follow Bay Area philanthropy. Here, she was a phenomenon, and yet another example of a powerful woman who took a commanding leadership role in family giving. Born and raised in San Francisco, she married the real estate investor (and future billionaire) Sanford Diller, and was active in philanthropic and educational causes and institutions throughout her life. She would emerge as one of the best friends that UCSF has ever had. Early on, in 2003, the foundation provided a $35 million foundational investment in the university’s presence at Mission Bay. 

Helen passed away in 2015. In the last 14 years, the foundation made significant annual gifts totaling $150 million and provided a permanent endowment for the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Mission Bay in Helen’s honor.

Given this track record, it's not surprising that the Helen Diller Foundation has now stepped forward with the $500 million gift. That's how these massive campus gifts nearly always go; they are preceded by years of smaller gifts. Which is why, when we see a donor giving a school an eight-figure gift, we often speculate that an even bigger donation may eventually lie down the line. With today's super-wealthy, there's almost always more money waiting in the wings that will one day go to philanthropy. And if you want to know where future giving will go, start by looking at past giving.  

For a more in-depth look at the Helen Diller Foundation, check out our funder profile here.