An Investor Giving Millions to Conservation and Green Research on Campus

  photo: Albie Venter/shutterstock

 photo: Albie Venter/shutterstock

Recent years have seen a major flow of new money into environmental causes from winners in finance, including quite a few hedge funders. Notable green donors who've scored big in the markets include Julian Robertson, Tom Steyer, Jeremy Grantham, Nathaniel Simons, David Gelbaum and Ray Dalio. 

And new environmental donors from Wall Street keep emerging. 

A case in point: Jeff and Laurie Ubben, whose wealth comes from Jeff’s investment fund, had a big year in 2017 when it comes to environmental philanthropy, making a couple of sizable and otherwise notable grants.

Last month, the Ubbens gave $25 million toward a mix of conservation and environmental research, which seems to be their biggest single commitment to date. The donation puts $20 million toward the World Wildlife Fund’s conservation work, including to reduce demand for illegal ivory trade. The remaining $5 million backs Duke University, Jeff Ubben’s alma mater, and a partnership between WWF and the university's Nicholas School of the Environment. 

The Nicholas School has a mix of environmental sciences in its curriculum, and conducts research on several subjects including energy, environmental health, forests and urban environments. Beyond science, however, it’s focused on training leaders in the field and developing new solutions, so it covers policy, economics and law. The Ubbens’ gift seeks to create some of those solutions in conservation and then put them into use in the field through the partnership. 

That donation follows a $5.5 million gift the couple gave back in April to Northwestern, another of Jeff Ubben’s alma maters, establishing the Ubben Program for Climate and Carbon Science. Once again, this donation goes toward a combination of science and public policy. The gift also follows a trend in philanthropy of donors giving big to establish interdisciplinary centers in order to study complex issues like data science or sustainability.  

Related: A University Gift to Get the Tech World and Humanity Better Acquainted

Aside from that mix of research and policy, you can probably see a pattern, here—in many ways, the couple are your typical (albeit large) alumni donors. Jeff Ubben is a trustee at both Duke and Northwestern, and the couple has made other large grants to both universities for things like arts, athletics and alumni programming. 

Their giving follows the rise of Jeff Ubben as head of a somewhat notorious activist investing firm, which basically means it's a corporate raider. (Fortune once called Ubben “a kinder, gentler barbarian.”) The firm notably bought enough shares to work its way onto the board of Microsoft. But it turns out that having a bunch of money, doing things with money, and giving money to things runs in the family, as his father Tim Ubben is also a wealthy investor, and the family is a large supporter of scholarship program the Posse Foundation. 

It's not completely clear why the couple has been taken by environmental causes, other than the fact that he’s a West Coast finance guy—oh, and there’s the familiar “now more than ever” Trump-era refrain in the announcement. But it’s possible these two recent gifts signal more interesting green giving on the way, perhaps even beyond alumni donations.

RelatedThe 9 Top Finance Guys in Environmental Philanthropy