Ideas Guy: A Closer Look at the Donor Behind That $200 Million Gift to the Mayo Clinic

Ken Wolter/shutterstock

Ken Wolter/shutterstock

With a few exceptions, mega-donors always have some sort of personal or professional relationship with the organization on the receiving end of a big gift. Michigan-based philanthropist Jay Alix takes this idea to a whole new level.

Alix recently gave the Mayo Clinic a $200 million gift earmarked for scholarships, curriculum enhancements, and the establishment of a professorship. The endowment gift was among the biggest charitable donations of 2018 and is the largest ever to the clinic. As a result, the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine will be renamed the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.

To call Alix a hands-on donor would be an understatement. Alix is a seasoned corporate turnaround expert. His firm, AlixPartners, which he founded in 1981, played a key role in leading many of the major corporate restructurings of the last two decades, including WorldCom, Enron, Dana Corporation, Calpine, Kmart Corporation and General Motors.

When he started his company decades ago, Alix said he modeled it on the Mayo Clinic’s clinical practice model, a “patient-centered approach that includes multi-specialty collaboration, cutting-edge technology, and dedicated staff focused on delivering the highest quality care to each individual patient.”

“The very core of Mayo became the very model of my company," Alix said.

Alix got to experience the Mayo model first-hand in 1994 when he became a patient. He walked away impressed. “The idea that I could fly in and be seen by half a dozen doctors and another half a dozen specialists in a few days was amazing,” he said. “Nowhere else does that happen.”

In 2006, Alix sold control of AlixPartners—although he remains the largest individual shareholder with about a 35 percent stake—and dedicated his time to pro bono advisory work and creative activities, which included producing documentary films, Broadway musicals and plays, and Grammy-nominated music. He has also provided support to the Detroit Public School System and the Norman Rockwell Museum, according to his AlixPartners bio.

I couldn’t help but notice this tantalizing line in Mayo’s press release about the gift: “In recent years, Mr. Alix has concentrated on philanthropy, including the University of Pennsylvania.” Although I was unable to find a gift to the school via a Google search—Alix received a bachelor’s degree in finance from the Wharton School—or any other large gifts for that matter, I suspect we’ll be hearing more from the 63-year-old Alix.

“My primary philanthropic interests are medicine and education,” he said in a statement announcing the Mayo Clinic gift. His net worth is about $1.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

A Provider of “Elegant Solutions”

Ten years ago, Alix deepened his relationship with the Mayo Clinic when he began working with its leaders to design solutions to ensure that the clinic’s model of patient care survives the looming “third-party payer” system crisis. (Click here for a more thorough explanation of this impending crisis facing health care companies.)

“I have no scientific or medical background, but I thought my business skills could be helpful,” Alix said of the engagement.

Alix’s “elegant solution” to this problem was the Mayo Endowed Clinician pilot project. Created in 2011, the project sought to “preserve a physician’s time so they could devote their schedules to the highest levels of care and work on the most difficult diagnostic cases, emphasizing a thorough care plan and flexible schedule to build close relationships with their patients.”

The pilot program was a resounding success. Mayo stakeholders ranked it No. 1 in patient satisfaction, physician satisfaction and overall quality of care within Mayo Clinic when compared with similar patient care sections.

Building on the success of the project, Mayo made endowing physicians and integrated teams of health care professionals a top priority in its “YOU ARE… The Campaign for Mayo Clinic,” which aimed to raise $3 billion by 2018. In February, the clinic announced it raised a total of $3.75 billion, having eclipsed its goal a year early.

Alix currently serves on the Mayo Clinic’s Board of Trustees and is the co-chair of Mayo’s Global Advisory Council.

Funding the Next Frontier of Medical Research

In a recent post looking at the surge in gifts earmarked for new hospitals, clinics and medical centers, I noted that funders are strongly drawn to capital projects that combine research and patient care. In addition, donors who cut big checks to build things often have a history of building things themselves.

Funders profiled in this piece include Sunderland Foundation, whose founder was the president of a Midwest cement company, Houston-based oil wildcatter Lester Smith, restaurant entrepreneurs Bob and Corrine Frick, and Herbert A. Meisler, who co-founded an apartment construction and management company.

Jay Alix, on the other hand, is a corporate turnaround specialist. A consultant. An “ideas guy.” He admired the Mayo Clinic’s operating model from afar over 30 years ago. He identified threats to its long-term financial health. And he went on to parlay his experience from the corporate turnaround world to produce a more effective and efficient delivery model.

Psychographic profiling would suggest that a donor of Alix’s caliber would eschew the capital project route, and that’s precisely how things played out. Rather than constructing new buildings, his $200 million gift is earmarked for attracting talent and advancing innovation in the school’s curriculum.

The Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine has campuses in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida, with students rotating among locations during their training. Alix’s scholarship funding will allow the school to recruit an even greater diversity of students to “care for our nation’s increasingly diverse patient populations,” said Fredric Meyer, dean of the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.

These students will be needed. In announcing Alix’s gift, the Mayo Clinic cited a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, noting that the U.S. faces a physician shortage projected to hit nearly 121,000 by the year 2030.

Indeed, one of the big knocks on mega-health gifts is that donors’ focus on shiny new wings and cancer care, while admirable and exciting, papers over the lack of accessible preventative care and the abysmal state of primary care in America writ large. The fact that Alix’s gift may address the shortage of doctors is encouraging.

Funds will also support and develop dual-degree programs that integrate concepts like artificial intelligence and bioengineering with medicine. According to John Noseworthy, M.D., Mayo Clinic president and CEO, the gift “enables faculty and students to explore new academic fields to better patient care, conduct research, apply new technologies and develop innovative teaching methods far into the future.”

Bottom line, here? Given his uniquely extensive relationship with the clinic, Alix is attuned to Mayo’s needs. And he concluded that these needs did not involve bricks and mortar.

“Genetics, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and other technologies are transforming medical research, education and practice,” Alix said. "This gift will further enable Mayo’s medical school to recruit the best medical students and to create a curriculum that trains them to harness evolving radical advances in medical science and technology to the greatest benefit of patients.”