Global Financier, Sports Fanatic, Theater Lover? How One Wall Street Donor Defied Conventional Wisdom

We here at Inside Philanthropy make a living trying to unearth hidden donor intentions. What's the real story behind any one gift?

The case of Steve Zide proves especially challenging. A few months ago, the global financier and self-described "sports zealot" gave a $10 million naming gift to Boston University. The money, however, wasn't earmarked for MBA scholarships or renovating the athletic center, but for a new theater complex.

The real story behind his gift? Simple: He wanted to honor his wife Jan's parents and "give back."

He was certainly cognizant of the incongruous optics at play. "It’s not an area that I would normally have thought of," said Zide, senior advisor of private equity at Bain Capital, the firm co-founded by Mitt Romney.

I was particularly drawn to Zide's affirmation that "exposure to the arts is an essential part of the mission of all great universities and in the development of full and productive members of society." It's a refreshing sentiment. It also suggests that the stereotype of the "international private equity guy that doesn't appreciate the arts" is an outdated canard. In fact, it's been outdated by about 100 years.

After all, Gilded Age philanthropy laid the foundation of the modern American art world. More recently, we've come across plenty of examples of Wall Street titans giving big for the arts, including Stephen Schwarzman, Kenneth Griffin, Steve Cohen and many more.

So while it may be cathartic to rage at executive bonuses and hedge fund excesses, let's not whip out the pitchforks just yet. As the Trump administration raises the axe over public funding for the arts, Wall Street millions represent one bulwark against looming and devastating spending cuts.

Which brings me back to Zide. He frames this appreciation for the arts within the larger, holistic context of the undergraduate experience. "We wanted to make sure that students interested in performing arts have the opportunity to pursue their passion—the way, for example, medical, law, and business students have the facilities to pursue theirs," he said.

It's a subtle but important acknowledgment, and Zide's perspective continues to gain currency across the arts philanthropy world. Many higher ed donors are increasingly drawn to initiatives that remove "the arts" from its silo and integrate it with areas like the STEM field or even climate change

The new Boston University complex will include the 250-seat Joan and Edgar Booth Theatre, production and costume shops, design labs, classrooms, and a landscaped plaza. While the potential here is pretty self-evident, Jim Petosa, director of the School of Theatre, helps to fill in the blanks. He hopes the new location will spark cross-disciplinary collaborations and encourage more students, staff and faculty to attend performances.

What else would you expect from a global financier and sports fanatic?