Ethical Leaders Wanted: Behind a Unique Career Readiness Gift

A few days ago we published a piece on how the field of ethics has traditionally been a niche funding area for philanthropists. Then I posited the theory that the election of Donald Trump—with many conflicts of interest surfacing in his administration—could give the field a boost from concerned donors across the next four years.

Now comes news that the College of Saint Benedict, a women's college in St. Joseph, Minnesota, received a $10 million commitment from an anonymous donor to create a Center for Ethical Leadership in Action. It's the largest single gift in the college's history.

Coincidence? Sure. But it was still pretty cool. 

What's more, the gift plays off of many of the trends we explored in our initial post. For starters, it corroborates the premise that most campus ethics gifts are one-off affairs from alumni. The anonymous gift to the College of Saint Benedict is a one-off in the truest sense—it aims to build the center from scratch. And if I was a betting person, I'd wager that the anonymous donor is an alumni. (Admittedly, this would be a very low-risk bet.)

Further, these kinds of ethics gifts generally come "bundled" with other issues that are top-of-mind to donors.

A $1 million grant from the Craig Newmark Foundation, the charitable organization established by Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark, to the Poynter Institute to "develop certification programs for journalists that commit to ethical decision making practices" serves the higher purpose of fighting "fake news."

Carnegie Mellon, meanwhile, landed a $10 million gift last fall from the law firm K&L Gates to study ethics and computational technologies. Similarly, donors are increasingly drawn to questions around how ethics interfaces with the world of artificial intelligence. And Southern Methodist University trustee emeritus Cary M. Maguire, who recently gave the school $2 million to endow its ethics center's directorship, traces his interest ethics to his time in the financial services industry.

The anonymous gift to Saint Benedict, meanwhile, creates a permanent endowment fund and frames the Center for Ethical Leadership in Action as a springboard for experiential learning. Internships and other opportunities will be "carefully designed to support the formation of ethical women leaders in a variety of fields from business to medicine to education and beyond." 

And so the "ethics" component is ultimately less about immersing students in the work of Aristotle or sticking it to Donald Trump and more about real-world leadership development. Viewed through this lens, it's yet another example of the donors supporting unique "career readiness" initiatives across higher education.

Provost Richard Ice sums it up best: "Having the center will enable us to focus our educational programming and opportunities on ethical leadership, which has always been central to our mission."