Setting a School Apart: What a Donor's Giving Says About the Higher Ed Fundraising Boom

 Photo: Africa Studio/shutterstock

Photo: Africa Studio/shutterstock

One of the biggest stories in higher education fundraising is the explosion of regional philanthropy. Schools all over the country are raising mountains of cash at levels that would have seemed absurd ten years ago.

The reason for this phenomenon is a relatively simple one. There are more rich people than ever, living all over the country, and many have decided to give back. Moreover, these donors aren't shrinking violets. They often want to move the needle by strengthening or differentiating a school's brand or position an off-the-beaten-path institution as a leader in a given field.

David Steward checks off all of these boxes. A billionaire who amassed his fortune in St. Louis, he aims to solidify the city's place as a "center of jazz throughout the country."

Steward is the founder and chairman of World Wide Technology, a private firm with revenues exceeding $10 billion. It is considered the largest black-owned company in the United States. Bloomberg estimates Steward's net worth at $3.9 billion, making him one of America's richest black businessmen.

When business leaders amass fortunes like that, some serious philanthropy often soon follows. Steward and his wife Thelma recently made a gift through his Steward Family Foundation to the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) to establish the David & Thelma Steward Institute for Jazz Studies.

The institute will enhance UMSL’s ability to recruit and cultivate students interested in jazz, including those from underserved minority communities across the St. Louis region and beyond. The gift will support scholarships, artists-in-residence, travel funds to advance jazz education and performance, as well as UMSL’s summer jazz camp for high-potential instrumental students in grades 7-12.

"Thelma and I are blessed to work with UMSL around our shared passion for jazz and education and make this initial investment to establish the institute," David Steward said.

Given St. Louis' rich jazz heritage and the fact that donors provide relatively meager support for jazz studies, Stewards' gift is both impactful and something that will differentiate UMSL from other schools. 

Again, we're seeing a noticeable uptick in these kinds of higher ed "differentiation" gifts, especially at regional schools. Sometimes these gifts appear completely out of the blue. A telling example came to us from Wall Street legend Bill Miller, who recently gave Johns Hopkins University’s philosophy department a whopping $75 million gift, instantly elevating the school’s department in that field. 

But more often than not, donors signal their intentions. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. For instance, philanthropists Kiran Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel’s made a $25 million gift to Fort Lauderdale's Nova Southeastern University to build a medical curriculum and community with a "truly international focus." It's ambitious stuff, but it came after years of support to the university and other regional educational, arts, and healthcare organizations.

The Stewards' gift to the University of Missouri–St. Louis follows a similar template.

The couple previously committed $10 million to the capital campaign to build a new building at the nonprofit performance space Jazz St. Louis. The building, which opened in 2014, is named the Harold & Dorothy Steward Center in honor of David’s parents.

"We’re trying to rekindle and preserve that legacy with this center for excellence in jazz," he said at the time. "I want to preserve this art form that I grew up on."

And back in 2009, World Wide Technology underwrote a performance by jazz legend Sonny Rollins in St. Louis. Talking to St. Louis Today, Steward recalled:

He said out of his 65 years of performing, this was the first time an African-American sponsored a concert of his. I was on cloud nine. He’s the greatest artist in the history of jazz on the saxophone, and he said that to me. I was so honored.

Meanwhile, the Steward Family Foundation gave about $5.9 million to 121 organizations in 2015, most of them local, according to tax statements for that year. The couple has also underwritten events benefiting St. Louis-based organizations like the Children's Charity of St. Louis and St. Mary’s Health Center.

Writing in his book Doing Business by the Good Book: Fifty-Two Lessons on Success Straight from the Bible, Steward wrote that institutional racism "had a profound effect on the man I am today. The adversities I encountered during my youth served as my training ground for hard times I eventually faced as a struggling entrepreneur."

His experiences have also shaped his approach to giving.

"Every day, at the end of the day," he said, "I ask myself, 'Am I living my life worthy of the sacrifice and commitment the people who went before me made on my behalf?' 'Am I honoring that and respecting that?’ I don’t want their sacrifice to be in vain.

"I have an accountability, an obligation to pass it on for generations to come."

You can bet that we'll be hearing more from this billionaire donor in coming years.