"I Have Some Faith." A Billionaire's Latest—and Biggest—Gift to His Alma Mater

  Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History. f11photo/shutterstock

 Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History. f11photo/shutterstock

One of the biggest trends in higher ed giving finds alumni donors writing eye-popping checks to their alma maters. Meanwhile, in the visual arts world, donors remain bullish on massive—and financially risky—capital projects at museums as a way to boost community engagement.

Businessman, philanthropist, and environmentalist Edward Bass' $160 million mega-gift to Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History checks off both boxes. In what Yale calls the "largest gift ever made to a natural history museum in the United States," Bass' contribution will fund the renewal and expansion of the museum, which was founded in 1866.

Commenting on the gift, Yale president Peter Salovey said, "Imagine an expanded natural history museum where the exhibits reflect the most current science; where faculty members and students can more efficiently use the collections; and where our investigators have spectacular research facilities. This is a magnificent gift."

It's hard to argue with Salovey's assessment. The gift is magnificent, historic, and emblematic of how the mega-rich are wielding more influence than ever across American campuses. I'll explore the bigger picture in a moment. But first, let's take a closer look at Edward P. Bass.

The Archetypical Alumnus Donor

Born in Fort Worth in 1945, Bass is the chairman of Fine Line, an investment and venture-capital management firm in Fort Worth.

In 1959, Bass and his three brothers inherited $2.8 million each from oil tycoon uncle Sid Richardson. (Bass is also the chairman of the board of directors of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation.) According to Forbes, "the brothers parlayed their inheritance into multi-billion-dollar fortunes with the help of bets on oil and pipelines that paid off big."

In early 2017, Bass and his three brothers sold their oil company to ExxonMobil for $5.6 billion in stock. Future payouts could total $1 billion. His net worth stands at approximately $2.1 billion.

As for Bass' recent largessemost higher ed mega-gifts unsurprisingly come from alumni, and Bass is no exception, here. 

He graduated from Yale in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in administrative science. He served for a short time in the United States Coast Guard and returned to Yale, studying for a master's degree in architecture, which he did not complete. (Bass' three brothers attended Yale, as did his father.)

Mega-gifts are often preceded by a series of smaller gifts. Once again, Bass adheres to this framework.

According to Yale, Bass previously endowed the directorship of the Peabody, and has provided other funding to the museum. He also supported the "strategic development" of Yale’s campus, with a focus on Science Hill and the new residential colleges, and he continues to advise the Buildings and Grounds Committee. 

He serves on the Architecture Dean’s Council and the Peabody Leadership Council, is the former co-chair of the Yale Development Council, and is a former senior fellow of the Yale Board of Trustees.

Bass' giving has had the cumulative effect of transforming the "scientific landscape at Yale," according to Salovey. "He was the founding donor of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, a leading contributor to the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, and a major supporter of the Yale Science Building, among other projects."

"He'll Stick With It"

Bass is also committed to conservation and environmental causes. In 2007, he gave $12 million to the World Wildlife Fund. He is director emeritus of the fund, on whose board he served from 1988 to 2007. In 2009, he was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of science by the University of Arizona in recognition of his contributions to the study of Earth’s environment.

Driven by the belief that conservation is "most effective when approached as an enterprise," Bass has also provided support to the New York Botanical Garden, the Jane Goodall Institute, and the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

Bass' giving portfolio is incredibly diverse, but if there's one unifying theme running through much of it, it's the fact that he likes building things.

He led the development of Fort Worth's Sundance Square, where the Bass Performance Hall is said to be one of the top 10 opera houses in the world. According to the Chicago Tribune, he more or less built the neighborhood from scratch, funding a 12-story apartment complex with an 11-screen movie theater, a corner deli, carry-out pizza, and home-delivered laundry.

Earlier this year, he made a gift to fund the construction of Yale's O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall, which will be part of the new Yale Science Building currently rising next door to the Peabody.

Bass' investments have also extended beyond our own solar system (figuratively speaking). In 1991, he spent $150 million backing the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, an experimental enclosed system designed to prove that humans could live in space.

Last year, he gave the project, which is run by the University of Arizona, a $30 million infusion, the third major commitment through the Philecology Foundation, the ecological nonprofit he created in 1986. "The University of Arizona is ideally suited to make the most of Biosphere 2’s resources," he said in a prepared statement. "I’m confident in its ability to benefit our planet’s long-term well-being and excited about what we will learn."

Bass has spent about $200 million to build and support the facility.

And therein lies another element of Bass' giving. As his longtime support for Yale and the Biosphere 2 project suggests, he's in it for the long haul.

Steve Chojnowski, who was the construction superintendent on Bass' Fort Worth jazz club (!), Caravan of Dreams, called attention to Bass' persistence. "When he decides he's going to do something, he'll stick with it," Chojnowski said.

"What seems like a new event to you and me, I'll bet was in his notebooks 10 years ago."

An Eye Toward Outreach

Bass has been building things for decades, and his $160 million gift to Yale to expand the Peabody museum—compared to $200 million to Biosphere 2 over 30 years—can be seen as his crowning achievement (at least for the time being; Bass is only 72 years old, with plenty left to give.)

He told the New York Times that his gift to the Peabody was motivated by a belief in institutions.

"I see institutions as having the power to transmit and perpetuate a set of fundamental values, and to do so generation to generation," he said. Yale, he added, is a particularly strong institution with a long history: "It’s been more than 300 years, so I have some faith."

From a more practical perspective, Bass said that his priorities as a donor are to preserve the museum’s collections against the trend of deaccessioning. "I really see the value of collections and of object-based study, and that includes in the sciences," he said.

The threat of deaccessioning, in which an institution sells its holdings to shore up its finances or fund renovations, has grown in urgency in the wake of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based Berkshire Museum's controversial plans to sell works that were deemed "no longer essential" to the museum’s programming.

When looking at the Berkshire drama last year, I wondered how donors would respond to the possibility of an institution deaccessioning its work. Would they withhold funds as a protest? Would they support the move and keep the donations flowing? A mix of both?

Bass' gift provides a more proactive option. By providing millions for extra space to accommodate the Peabody's massive collection, his gift takes the idea of deaccessioning off the table entirely.

The renovation will also be central to the museum's outreach plans. "We will have 50 percent more gallery space, cutting-edge exhibits, and the ability to put the extraordinarily rich collection not only on view for the public, but also in the hands of researchers and students alike," Bass said. (Over 130,000 people visit the museum each year, including 25,000 school children.)

It's telling that Bass called attention to the museum's outreach efforts, as donors remain committed to the idea of the museum as a nexus point for community engagement.

This is a powerful talking point that also serves the dual purpose of tamping down concerns about the well-documented financial risks associated with ambitious capital expenses.

Bass' gift follows two high-profile capital quagmires over the past year. First, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would delay plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art. And in October, the Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic's half-billion-dollar plan for a gut renovation of David Geffen Hall went back to the drawing board.

Financial risks aren't the only factors giving some donors pause when it comes to funding big-ticket capital improvements. Many have also concluded that rather than building glamorous new wings, the best use of their money is to fund programs that address social challenges affecting historically underrepresented demographics.

One way to thread the needle is to frame a capital gift as a means to boost engagement, and that's precisely what Bass has done here.

We also saw this approach in Kenneth Griffin's recent $16 million gift to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The gift comes as part of a $100 million campaign that involves the construction of a 59,000-square-foot wing slated to open on February 9, 2019.

Griffin said that the expansion "will create a wonderful opportunity for generations of Palm Beach families, students, and visitors to learn about and enjoy art."

The Rise of Mega-Mega-Givers

All of which brings me back to the first trend referenced in the opening paragraph, the startling rise of alumni mega-gifts.

A 2017 survey by fundraising consulting firm Marts & Lundy found that "mega-gifts"—defined as those exceeding $10 million—topped $6 billion in total for the first time, continuing a post-recession surge in eight- and nine-figure donations to colleges and universities.

Bass' gift fits squarely within this paradigm. (It also underscores the fact that we need to revise our nomenclature. If a "mega-gift" is characterized as one exceeding $10 million, what do we call a gift exceeding $100 million? Or $150 million?)

The good news for colleges moving forward is self-evident. A single gift can instantly transform a university into a national research or performing arts leader, fund scholarships, and keep tuition in check.

The bad news—to the extent one could find any fault with a mega-gift—lies in the fact that while mega-gifts rise, giving at the middle of the "gift pyramid" has dropped off somewhat, suggesting that university fundraisers are having a difficult time engaging younger alumni and growing the donor base. 

The net result? A disproportionate reliance on a handful of wealthy donors whose influence and priorities may push aside more pressing needs.

To see the less tangible effects of this trend play out in real time, consider the following case study.

Back in 2016, a high-profile university ran the numbers and found that while the amount of alumni to whom the university solicits donations continues to increase, fewer donated than any year in the past 20 years. Nonetheless, the total dollar amount raised by the university increased dramatically during this timeframe thanks to the infusion of large gifts.

On one hand, this should be a cause for celebration. The school raised more money than ever, and even if the windfall came from a smaller pool of donors, is that really a problem?

Indeed it is, according to the university's president.

"Participation by new donors is very important, and I would love to see that trend" reverse, he said. "High rates of participation are good for the university financially, and create a sense of psychological commitment by alumni to the university."

The president in question was, ironically enough, Yale's Peter Salovey.