Big Gifts for Campus Entrepreneurship Programs Keep Flowing. Here's Why

 photo: ArtPhaneufPhotography.com/shutterstock

photo: ArtPhaneufPhotography.com/shutterstock

One of the constants in higher ed philanthropy over the past couple of years has been the infatuation of some alumni donors with campus programs that nurture entrepreneurs.

Donors who made their fortunes in this fashion—and believe passionately in the financial and personal rewards of entrepreneurial careers—often want to prepare students for similar trajectories. In turn, there's no shortage of young people who dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Tory Burch. This combination of supply and demand explains a wave of gifts for campus entrepreneurship programs.

We make a point of dissecting these gifts because they carry important lessons for major gift officers who are in the business of finding sweet spots that marry the interests of donors with those of the campus community. The latest example comes to us from Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth College announced a $20 million pledge from Allison and Rick Magnuson in support of a new center for entrepreneurship, to be named the Magnuson Family Center for Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College. The center, according to the school, will be a "dynamic hub for faculty, student and alumni connected to any department or school at Dartmouth."

Rick Magnuson received his M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is the founder and executive managing director of GI Partners, a San Francisco-based private equity firm. With $10 billion of capital under management, the company owns assets ranging from specialist care homes for children in Britain to nursing homes and wineries in California.

In 2013, Dartmouth launched a four-year pilot project to expand the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) and founded the DEN Innovation Center. The Magnusons were among its first supporters. "Rick and Allison have been with us since the beginning,” said Jamie Coughlin, DEN’s director and now director of the Magnuson Center. "The pilot was a smashing success. Now, led by Rick and Allison’s generosity, we’re creating permanency within the institution."

This support notwithstanding, the Magnusons' larger philanthropic footprint is relatively light, at least based on publicly available information. This shouldn't come as a huge surprise. We're finding that many entrepreneurship-oriented gifts are coming from donors who are new to the world of higher ed mega-giving.

The University of Chicago, for example, netted a $20 million gift to support social innovation and entrepreneurship from alumnus Tandean Rustandy, founder of the Jakarta, Indonesia-based PT Arwana Citramulia Tbk, a ceramic tile manufacturing company.

Or consider UC Berkeley alumni Kevin Chou and his wife, Dr. Connie Chen. The couple gave UC's Haas School of Business $25 million to "inspire current and future Haas students to become entrepreneurs." Chou co-founded mobile game company Kabam before selling a majority of its assets to a South Korean firm for $800 million. At the time of the gift, Chou was only 36 years old.

Dartmouth's Coughlin noted that the Magnuson Center will serve students and faculty in all disciplines. "Our goal is to reach out to the entire student population, undergraduates and graduate students, all faculty who are developing ideas, and alumni from all backgrounds. Entrepreneurial thinking is for all of our stakeholders, and we look forward to sharing our resources across the institution,” Coughlin said.

The Magnusons clearly agree with this approach, and they're not alone. 

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. "Students from any major will benefit from learning and elevating their creativity, their innovation, and leadership skills into an entrepreneurial mindset," Anne Hynes said.

Magnuson, like most his entrepreneurial alumni brethren, cited his formative undergraduate years as the main driver behind his gift. While studying at Dartmouth, he and a classmate, Jon Saer, established a transportation service. The business had its ups and downs, but was ultimately a powerful learning experience.

“I want as many Dartmouth students as possible to have the same opportunity that John and I had—and the center for entrepreneurship is going to help students, and faculty, who want to execute on their innovative ideas,” he said. "Through its co-curricular program, the center will offer students the opportunity to learn basic business skills, providing a foundation for success."

The Magnusons' gift is part of an overall $40 million investment to infuse entrepreneurship across the Dartmouth campus through endowed funding, and results thus far suggest the larger alumni community is very much on board. The college has received 16 gifts of $1 million from a group of alumni leaders in technology, venture capital, and private equity—creating the Dartmouth Founders Project and bringing gifts and commitments for the center to $36 million.

Conventional wisdom suggests that tech and finance donors care quite a bit about measuring a return on investment. If so, that would explain why these Dartmouth alumni have been so eager to open their checkbooks. Since its inception, the the DEN Innovation Center has incubated more than 100 ventures, awarded more than $400,000 in grants, matched and funded 30 startup internships, and provided 300 hours of one-on-one mentorship.

All of this fundraising falls under the Call to Lead, Dartmouth’s $3 billion campaign, and it comes at a time when colleges are setting staggeringly large fundraising targets. Recent examples of this phenomenon include Vanderbilt University ($600 million), the University of Maryland ($1.5 billion), USC ($6 billion), and the University of Arizona, which met its $1.5 billion fundraising goal two years early, in 2016.

Magnuson said the center’s mission aligns with one of The Call to Lead's principal priorities that also resonates with many higher ed alumni donors—developing future leaders.

"The center for entrepreneurship will be one more way our students will prepare to be the next generation of leaders," Magnuson said. "They’ll build confidence, resourcefulness, and resilience through having tried, and perhaps having failed, along the way."