Anschutz: With a Historic Mega-Gift, a Publicity-Shy Billionaire Inches Into the Spotlight


Philip and Nancy Anschutz have been among America’s top philanthropists for many years. Their foundation, which has long held over $1 billion in assets, has been pumping out a minimum of $50 million in grants annually for the past decade. Still, a little over three years ago, when exploring the Anschutz Foundation’s education priorities, we noted that this low-profile billionaire had “barely scratched the surface of what he could give away relative to the size of his fortune.” That fortune currently stands at $12.5 billion.

Recent news finds Anschutz picking up the pace.

The Anschutz Foundation made a $120 million gift, the largest private philanthropic commitment in its history, to the University of Colorado (UC) Anschutz Medical Campus to accelerate the campus’s growth and development as one of the newest and most prominent academic medical campuses in the United States.

The gift encapsulates two surging trends across big philanthropy. First, it’s the latest in an impressive list of mega-gifts earmarked toward transforming university medical centers into research “destinations.” Second, it’s another dramatic example of exploding regional philanthropy.

But it also represents a huge splash for the notoriously publicity-shy Anschutz after decades of quiet and occasionally controversial giving. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s first briefly look at the mechanics of the gift itself.

Building the Medical Center of the Future

The gift will support strategic faculty recruitment and retention, innovative research efforts, industry partnerships, technology transfer, and a new 390,000-square-foot interdisciplinary Anschutz Health Sciences Building.

“Among our initial opportunities are attracting and retaining top talent in key areas including personalized medicine, novel therapeutics and immunotherapy, and mental and behavioral health,” said CU School of Medicine Dean and Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs John J. Reilly Jr., MD.

“This gift,” said CU President Bruce D. Benson, “combined with their previous commitments, goes a long way toward ensuring the CU Anschutz Medical Campus is one of the leading medical care, research and education facilities in the world.”

The gift comes at a time when donors are digging deep to create world-class university hospitals and research labs. Recent gifts include Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield’s $50 million gift to St. Louis University, Andrew J. Viterbi’s $50 million gift to the University of California, the Blavatnik Family Foundation’s $10 million pledge to Stanford Medicine, the Sunderland Foundation’s $66 million gift to the University of Kansas Health System, and the Helen Diller Foundation’s $1 billion commitment to UC San Francisco.

The Archetypal Regional Mega-Donor

Anschutz’s gift is another reminder that some of the biggest action in philanthropy right now is happening outside familiar coastal enclaves. The drivers behind the surge in regional philanthropy have been well-documented on Inside Philanthropy. In short, there are more wealthy people than ever, and they live all over the fruited plains. Philip Anschutz provides a textbook case study.

Born in Russell, Kansas, Anschutz is the son of rancher and wildcatter oil tycoon Frederick Anschutz, who started the Anschutz Oil Company in 1939. Philip launched his own business, the Anschutz Corporation, in 1962, and grew the holding company’s investments over time.

His empire is vast and diverse. He has holdings in oil, railroads, real estate, telecommunications and entertainment. He is a co-founder of Major League Soccer, and owns the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and one-third of the L.A. Lakers. “His collection of American Western art,” writes the New Yorker, “is among the finest in private hands.”

In 1999, Fortune compared him to the 19th-century tycoon J.P. Morgan, as both men “struck it rich in a fundamentally different way: They operated across an astounding array of industries, mastering and reshaping entire economic landscapes.”

Anschutz’s recent gift, meanwhile, aims to strengthen what is the only medical campus of its kind in the Rocky Mountain region, and the largest from Chicago to the West Coast.

CU renamed the medical campus after Anschutz in 2006 in honor of the $91 million the Anschutz family had given the university over the preceding six years. The most recent gift brings the foundation’s total investment in the campus to nearly $300 million since 2000.

“We are proud partners in the development of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and share an ambitious vision for further elevating it among the country’s top medical destinations,” Anschutz said. “The campus stands as a Colorado landmark and a hub of leading-edge research, innovation and education–and, perhaps most importantly, as the place to go for the highest-quality healthcare delivered by the best minds in medicine.”

“Strong Political Views”

Anschutz’s giving has unfolded below the radar for many years. This reflects his broader style. As Town and County noted, after spending over 30 years as a prodigious entrepreneur, Anschutz had never given a full-length interview to the press.

When we first started looking at the Anschutz foundation a few years back, it didn’t even have a website. Now it does, all of one page, and it lists five grant focus areas: Health and Wellness, Human Services, Youth Development and Education, Quality of Life and Development, and Values and Relationships.

Recent major grantees, according to the foundation’s site, include the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Club, the Salvation Army, and at least five Denver-based organizations, including the Denver Art Museum, which is currently in the throes of its own massive capital campaign.

Philip and Nancy have given to their alma mater, the University of Kansas, where a library and sports center are named for them, and in 2000, they launched the Foundation for a Better Life, which promotes compassion, honesty and other values.

Then there’s the couple’s support for right-leaning causes.

According to Town and Country’s Ben Ryder Howe, like Warren Buffett, Anschutz has “strong political views that he is not afraid to put his money behind, thus ensuring the disapproval of a certain sector of the population.”

In July 2016, the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans reported that the Anschutz Foundation gave $190,000 to anti-gay groups between 2010 and 2013, drawing condemnation and prompting a #BoycottCoachella hashtag on social media. (Anschutz owns Coachella organizer Goldenvoice and half of the festival itself through his entertainment company, AEG.)

In response, Anschutz released a statement that read, in part, “recent claims published in the media that I am anti-LGBTQ are nothing more than fake news—it is all garbage. I unequivocally support the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation.” He added that he had immediately stopped giving to certain groups upon learning of their support for anti-gay causes.

Earlier this year, Pitchfork examined the foundation’s tax filing from December 2015 and November 2016, and found that while it stopped giving to three groups at the center of the controversy, the foundation continued to fund organizations that “have a history of making anti-LGBTQ statements.”

Anschutz’s lawyer responded with a statement citing the foundation’s progress in cutting off funding for organizations whose activities were “inconsistent with our values,” while declaring, “if our systems have failed to identify some activities that we do not support, we will stop funding those organizations as we learn more.”

The 2016 filings listed other conservative and libertarian grant recipients, including the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity and the Federalist Society, as well as Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes cannabis legalization.

In March of 2018, Anschutz donated $1 million to the Elton John AIDS Foundation LGBT fund, which provides funding for medical care, programs and policies in the realm of AIDS prevention.

“My gift to the Elton John Foundation is intended to emphasize that we support freedom of all people to live their lives peacefully, without interference from others,” Anschutz said. “Sexuality is among the most personal of issues, and it has never been my intent to weigh in on people’s private lives. I support the rights of all people and oppose discrimination and intolerance against the LGBTQ community.

“Our foundation supports a broad range of philanthropic causes. I regret if any money given to a charity for other purposes may have indirectly worked against these values. That was not my intention, it does not reflect my beliefs, and I am committed to making sure our internal processes are strengthened so that it does not happen again.”

(For the record, that’s one of the strongest mea culpas for past giving that we’ve ever heard from a top philanthropist.)

“What Would You Do For an Encore?”

In Ben Ryder Howe’s Town and Country profile, the writer asked the following question:

Say you were 77 years old, a grandfather and a businessman with a reputation for “seeing around corners.” You had already made more money than God, reshaped cities, pioneered industries, donated more than a billion dollars to charity, and earned the kind of influence that makes senators crawl across the country on their knees. What would you do for an encore?

The answer, according to Howe and Anschutz, is to purchase and restore historic hotels.

Anschutz has spent over $900 million to bring two hotels, Colorado Springs’ the Broadmoor and the Sea Island, in St. Simons Island, in Georgia, back to their former glory. (Earlier this year, the couple made a $4 million gift to the St. Simons Land Trust to preserve land on the island.)

Then again, Howe’s piece was written over a year before Anschutz’s $120 million gift to CU, the largest gift in his foundation’s history. Could yet more accelerated giving be on the horizon? Corresponding evidence points to the affirmative.

It’s worth remembering that the CU gift came after a 24-month period in which the now-78 Anschutz began carefully shedding his reclusive public persona. The Town and Country profile came on the heels of another extensive interview with Forbes, again focused on his hotel restoration work. And his public comments regarding his foundation’s grantmaking and subsequent gift to the Elton John Foundation also thrust him into the spotlight, however unwittingly.

One of the most intriguing questions in this era of great fortunes and big philanthropy is how billionaires like Philip Anschutz will ultimately dispose of historic fortunes that may be too large to pass easily to heirs. For all the large gifts of recent years, it could well be that this is nothing compared to far greater legacy gifts that lie ahead.