Big Gifts Flow to These Legacy Nonprofits. What Are the Takeaways?

 The reptile house at the cincinnati zoo. photo: Robert J. Rockefeller/shutterstock

The reptile house at the cincinnati zoo. photo: Robert J. Rockefeller/shutterstock

It's always interesting to watch how big legacy nonprofits try to stay in step with key trends in philanthropy. Surprisingly, many institutions that were founded over a century ago do a better job than you might think at moving with the times. For example, we've reported on how august arts organizations like Carnegie Hall have lately rolled out new initiatives on social justice and diversity. 

Zoos are another case in point. It's been a busy year for zoos looking to engage donors concerned with issues like accessibility, conservation and economic development. But the growing sophistication of these institutions only partly explains their recent fundraising success; other factors are also at work, like a surge in regional giving, often spearheaded by old-school donors with deep civic ties. For all the talk about newfangled trends in philanthropy, a traditional impulse to give back to one's community or alma mater still drives many of the eight- and nine-figure gifts we write about, especially those coming from older donors looking to build their legacy. 

And while the first zoo in America may have opened nearly 150 years ago, in many cities, these institutions are deeply cherished and deliver tangible local benefits. In that sense, it's not surprising they're pulling in more large gifts. 

In mid-January, South Dakota businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford gave the San Diego Zoo, opened in 1916, a $30 million donation toward the construction of a $69 million children’s zoo to be named in his honor. A few months later, the John P. McGovern Foundation awarded the Houston Zoo—founded in 1922—$50 million as part of its $150 million fundraising campaign to commemorate its upcoming 100th anniversary.

Now comes word that Harry and Linda Fath, a couple with a long track record of giving to organizations in southwest Ohio, have made a $50 million gift to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden—founded in 1875—as part of its $150 million for its "More Home to Roam" capital campaign by 2025.

Like Sanford and the McGovern Foundation, the Faths view the zoo as a powerful nexus point for engaging the community and attracting visitors to the city. The gift also underscores the growing influence of regional funders in places like the Midwest. The Faths may not be a household name, but their massive gift is on par with those flowing to zoos located in much larger cities like San Diego and Houston.

Harry Fath is a local businessperson, real estate executive and entrepreneur whose Cincinnati-based Fath Properties portfolio includes over 8,400 apartment homes in Ohio, Northern Kentucky, Indiana and Dallas.

He has served as a Cincinnati Opera board member and a University of Cincinnati Foundation member. In 2012, Harry Fath received the Humanitarian of the Year award with Lighthouse Youth Services. Linda Fath's commitments include work with the Taft Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Cincinnati May Festival. 

Mental health is a big issue for the Faths. Last year, the couple donated $50 million to the Lindner Center of Hope in Mason, Ohio to advance research, development and expansion of treatment programs for mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Earlier this year, the couple donated $50 million to Christian ministry Mercy Ships, which operates the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world. The couple also pledged $10 million for scholarships to Fath's alma mater, St. Xavier High School. 

Add it all up, and the Faths' story is a striking example of the surge in regional philanthropy across the country. 

The second Gilded Age has produced a startling number of rich people, many of whom, like Harry Fath, made their fortunes in “old economy” sectors like real estate. Donors like the Faths also retain a deep loyalty and affection for their home cities and feel compelled to give back. Fath previously cited Warren Buffett, who pledged to give away his fortune, as his inspiration.

"It's fun to make money," Fath told the Cincinnati Business Courier. "It's fun to be an entrepreneur—if you're built for it, which very few people are. But I can tell you that giving money to worthy causes is 10 times as much fun."

What's more, like most examples of big-time regional philanthropy, the Faths' $50 million gift to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden didn't come completely out of the blue. Their mega-gift was preceded by support for the zoo's new gorilla habitat.

"Attendance growth is directly connected to the Zoo’s ability to provide access into the Zoo," the press release read. And so the Faths' gift will fund a new parking garage, which will allow nearly five acres of green space for elephants while offering safe visitor access and alleviating parking and traffic issues for neighboring businesses and residents. Plans also call for an Australian-themed area with an activity course and a bigger, more naturalistic spaces for animals. 

“Why are Linda and I making this contribution?" Harry Fath asked. "The reasons are too many to name, but the zoo is one of the jewels of our city, so we decided the Cincinnati Zoo has to be one of our transformative gifts."