Key Ingredients: A Mega-Gift Captures the Higher Ed Fundraising Zeitgeist


By providing support for the construction of a new performing arts facility and funding a program that eliminates student loans, Diana Nelson and John Atwater’s $31.6 million gift to Brown University is attuned to some of the hotter trends in the higher ed giving space.

A majority of the total gift, $20 million, will create the Diana Nelson and John Atwater Lobby in the performance arts center. Brown describes the project as a “hub for music, dance, theatre and multimedia arts scholarship.” The remaining $11.6 million will support the Brown Annual Fund and the Brown Promise. The former supports investments in strategic areas like financial aid, research and teaching. The latter, launched last year, replaced loans with scholarship funds in all university financial aid packages.

Atwater is a Class of 1983 graduate who is founder and CEO of Prime Group, a leading real estate equity and investment firm. He has been a Brown Corporation Trustee since 2015, is a member of the BrownTogether campaign cabinet, and served previously on the President’s Leadership Council. He is also a trustee of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, former chair of the California Academy of Sciences, and an advisory board member for the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Atwater's wife, Diana Nelson, is chair of the global hospitality and travel company Carlson, board president at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a director at Common Sense Media, and a past director of the World Childhood Foundation.

The San Francisco-based couple has made previous gifts to establish endowed professorships both in the arts and in environmental studies at Brown. Through the university’s BrownTogether campaign, they established the Diana Nelson and John Atwater University Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Boom Times

Nelson and Atwater’s gift comes at a time when liberal arts studies have enjoyed something of a renaissance—pun intended—against the backdrop of the larger higher ed boom during which universities collectively raised $43.6 billion in 2017.

While donors continue to support endowments and digitization projects, there’s a growing consensus across the donor community that the liberal arts can effectively complement the STEM model. We’re also seeing gifts earmarked for traditionally overlooked areas like philosophy studies.

Nor are elite universities the only institutions receiving such support. George and Judy Marcus gave $25 million to San Francisco State University to create the George and Judy Marcus Funds for Excellence in the Liberal Arts. SF State has raised $133 million toward its $150 million capital campaign goal, a relatively massive sum for a public school that, according to campaign chair John Gumas, is new to the world of high-stakes higher ed fundraising. “This is the first campaign we’d ever done,” he said. “We’re not fundraising experts.”

Brown, meanwhile, is fundraising on a somewhat separate plane.

Back in January, President Christina Paxson announced that the university's BrownTogether fundraising campaign surpassed its halfway point with $1.64 billion raised toward its $3 billion goal.

The campaign is now projected to end by 2022, but that time frame is “a conservative estimate,” Paxson said. Since its public launch in 2015, with a seed fund of just under $950 million, BrownTogether has raised about $300 million per year. The Annual Fund has received $193 million out of its $400 million goal. The fund plays an especially important role in Brown’s finances because the money can be spent within the year of its donation, said Atwater. The Annual Fund also plays a key role in fundraising for BrownPromise.

These boom times have also generated surge in giving for capital projects. According to the Council for Aid to Education, 41 percent of the $43.6 billion raised by universities in 2017—$17.8 billion—funded capital expenses, representing a 12.3 percent increase over 2016. And fundraising budgets during capital campaigns increased by an average of 65 percent, according to the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Nelson and Atwater’s gift enables Brown to construct a state-of-the-art home for the performing arts that will serve as a “central convening space for intellectual and artistic collisions that are both planned and spontaneous,” according to Paxson. Like many other universities, Brown believes that a new building is, to quote Atwater, essential in “attracting more talented scholars to the University and propelling academic excellence in the arts.”

The new building is an integral component to its Brown Arts Initiative, a campus-wide effort to make the university a vibrant laboratory for inventive arts practice and scholarship.

Abolishing Loans

Nelson and Atwater’s support for Brown Promise suggests that donors are keen on eliminating student loans for university students. Launched last year, the $120 million campaign drops all loans from financial aid packages awarded to their undergraduates. In doing so, Brown became the 16th U.S. institution—and the sixth in the Ivy League (excluding Cornell and Dartmouth)—to offer all of its undergraduates a loan-free education.

It’s no coincidence that elite universities are going all-in on this model. For starters, they have large endowments. In addition, they have “very few low-income students” in the first place, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at

This fact underscores the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the higher ed space, particularly in the aftermath of huge gifts from Michael Bloomberg and Ron Perelman to Johns Hopkins and Princeton, respectively. While affluent elite schools rake in mega-donations to recruit a relatively small number of low-income students, mid-tier institutions like the City University of New York, which serve such students at a far more expansive scale and, according to recent studies, are the true engines of economic mobility, struggle to stay afloat.

Given their collective wealth and limited number of low-income students, Kantrowitz says we should “expect to see more focus on free tuition, as opposed to no loans” at elite schools moving forward. At the same time, an imminent economic downturn may force already struggling mid-tier public schools to make some difficult decisions that will affect the low-income students they serve.

There will be plenty of time for exploring this widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in the new year and beyond. In the meantime, liberal arts purists will be heartened to know that donor enthusiasm for the performing arts is alive and well.

“We truly believe that the performing arts have the ability to build and reinforce community bonds through shared experience,” Nelson said. “The arts and humanities have the power to help people think through complex topics, and they engender empathy as we see people’s stories told through theatre and music and dance. Brown is uniquely situated to bring another dimension to how we think about key challenges in the world.”