Bricks, Mortar, and Medicine: A Closer Look at a Campus Mega-Gift

  Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

 Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

Our most recent example of higher ed mega-giving comes to us from Atlanta, where the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation announced a whopping $400 million gift to Emory University not long ago. 

Part of the funds will go toward the new Health Sciences Research Building planned on Emory's main Druid Hills campus that will house faculty and staff who aim to "develop cures, interventions, and prevention methods that improve the health of patients."

Partnering with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory researchers in the new building also will investigate childhood diseases, focusing on discoveries that advance treatments and cures for its youngest patients.  

Funding will also support the new Winship Cancer Institute Tower which will provide infusion facilities, operating rooms, clinical examination rooms, rehabilitation spaces, imaging technology and clinical research capacity. 

Emory's windfall is the latest reminder that biomedical research is one of the most powerful magnets for large-scale campus gifts. Since the earliest days of modern philanthropy, donors have been spurred on by the potential to achieve major breakthroughs in the fight against disease and suffering. That impulse is as strong as ever among philanthropists, only now, there's more money than ever sloshing around. And universities, with medical institutions that combine research and patient care, are well-positioned to score bigger paydays. Major capital projects are often part of the mix. 

The other backdrop, here, is that very large higher ed mega-gifts are coming more frequently. These have included John Paulson's $400 million gift to Harvard University, Phil Knight's $500 million gift to the University of Oregon, the Helen Diller Foundation's $500 million gift to University of California, San Francisco, and most recently, Roy and Diana Vagelos' $250 million gift to the Columbia University Medical School.

One of the cardinal rules of higher ed mega-giving is that, with a few exceptions, massive gifts are preceded by years of smaller gifts, and the Woodruff family and foundation have dutifully adhered to this tried-and-true rule.

Robert Woodruff, the president of the Coca-Cola Company from 1923 until 1954, became a major benefactor of Emory beginning in 1937. In 1979, Woodruff and his brother George W. Woodruff gave the school $105 million; they would eventually give a total of $230 million.

More recently, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation gave Emory $80 million toward the construction of a 210-bed wing at Emory University Hospital in 2013. And from 2014 to 2016, it allocated roughly $60 million to fund key priorities of Emory Medicine to bolster brain health and neuroscience programs, expand the Winship Cancer Institute, and support signature programs. 

Given the foundation's track record, it's not surprising that it stepped forward with $400 million.

I also find it intriguing that the gift came a few weeks before Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase announced they would form an independent healthcare company that would focus on using technology to simplify care for its employees. It's tantalizing stuff, and it provides a useful complement to the Woodruff gift.

While I have no doubt the decision-makers at the foundation believe in the power of technology to revolutionize the sector, Woodruff's gift frames classic brick and mortar improvements as integral components to drive improved healthcare delivery.

"This gift will allow us to accelerate the scientific discoveries needed for breakthroughs in patient care and to extend our reach in reducing the burden of disease for patients and their families," said Jonathan S. Lewin, M.D., Emory’s executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of Emory Healthcare.