Funding a "Leadership Laboratory." Behind Another Higher Ed Mega-gift

  sevenMaps7/shutterstock

 sevenMaps7/shutterstock

News out of Greencastle, Indiana points to another compelling case study of the regional philanthropy boom playing out colleges and universities located far from coastal urban centers.

DePauw University, a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,300 students, recently received a $20 million gift from former chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills Steve Sanger and his wife Karen, who are alumni of the school. The gift will fund the school's new Sanger Leadership Initiative and supports the university's Campaign for DePauw, which has exceeded its $300 million goal and now stands at $354 million.

The commitment bears many of the main hallmarks of a regional higher ed mega-gift.

First, it came from a loyal alumni couple. Second, Steve Sanger, like many big-time regional givers, made his fortune in a "legacy" industry, consumer goods in this case. Third, the gift supported a large, audacious fundraising campaign that hit its goal ahead of schedule. DePauw isn't alone, here—small private universities all across the country have become increasingly confident in their ability to raise tons of money.

Lastly, the Sangers, like most regional mega-givers, telegraphed their intentions, albeit indirectly. In 2015, the couple made a similar $20-million gift to the University of Michigan—where Steve received his MBA—to expand leadership development programs at the Ross School of Business.

I'll loop back to the DePauw commitment and how it fits into the growing niche of higher ed leadership gifts in a moment. But let's first take a closer look at the donors.

A native of Cincinnati, Sanger received a B.A. degree in history from DePauw in 1968 and an MBA degree from the University of Michigan in 1970. He joined General Mills in 1974. During his 13 years as chairman and CEO, he led the company through the acquisition of Pillsbury, retiring in 2008. Sanger was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from DePauw in 2004 and is a past member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors.

In October 2016, Sanger was elected chairman of Wells Fargo’s board of directors after chairman John Stumpf stepped down in the wake of revelations that company employees had secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts. Last summer, the bank faced a new scandal involving auto insurance. In August of 2017, Wells Fargo announced that Sanger would be stepping down at the end of the year, among other changes to the board. 

Karen Ogren Sanger graduated from DePauw and went on to earn an MAT degree from Northwestern University in 1969 and the Juris Doctorate degree from William Mitchell College of Law in 1980.

According to DePauw, the Sangers' donation will create the Sanger Leadership Initiative, which will "bring together multiple co-curricular centers on campus for new leadership learning opportunities, experiential learning programs, speaking events and collaborations with other institutions."

By aiming to make co-curricular leadership learning opportunities "available to all students, regardless of major or whether they’re enrolled in fellows programs," the Sanger commitment echoes other leadership and entrepreneurship gifts that aim to cast as wide a net as possible. 

For example, last year, telecommunications entrepreneur James Hynes and his wife Anne gave a $15 million gift to Iona College to establish the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with the goal of serving the entire student population.

Commenting on his gift, Sanger extolled the virtues of experiential leadership development.

"Leadership is a set of behaviors which enable leaders to motivate people, to reach difficult ethical decisions under pressure, and to draw the best from their teams," he said. "Leadership behaviors are often best learned through experience, and the campus leadership opportunities and experiential learning that DePauw has offered have made this college a leadership laboratory.

"With our gift, Karen and I look to help DePauw impact new generations of students in even deeper ways."

Add it all up, and the Sangers join a growing cadre of alumni donors hailing from the business world looking to make their imprint in future leadership development. 

In related coverage, check out our take on William Lauder's $4 million commitment to endow the William P. Lauder Wharton Leadership Fellows Program at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Lowry and Peggy Mays' $25 million gift to Texas A&M's business school.