More Mystery Gifts

Now that people realize an anonymous benefactor is sending millions to universities led by women, some donations from last year appear linked.
May 8, 2009

As the latest mystery donation to a university with a female president was announced this week, it appears that some gifts from a year ago were part of this unusual philanthropic campaign.

The latest lucky donation recipient, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced its $5 million gift Wednesday. And while some colleges with female presidents cross their fingers in hopes of being the next to receive a donation from the mystery giver, others think they might already have received theirs.

Both the University of South Florida, headed by President Judy Genshaft, and California State University at Northridge, under President Jolene Koester, received $5 million checks last year. As was the case with the recent string of donations (16 in all, not counting South Florida and Northridge) making headlines, the gifts to South Florida and Northridge were given under the strict condition of anonymity and were mostly earmarked for student scholarship funding.

Another of those recent 16 is Hunter College of the City University of New York, which received a $5 million anonymous gift last fall. Hunter officials realized they might be part of the mysterious trend only after several other colleges came forward.

Ranging from $1 million to $10 million – for Michigan State University – the gifts reported this year total more than $80 million. All were administered through a third party intermediary, typically a bank or law firm, and came with the stipulation that the benefactor’s identity would be forever secret.

That is why, said Carmen Chandler, director of news and information at Northridge, the scholarship fund born out of its $5 million gift is titled after the location of the bank that issued the check rather than a donor’s name. The Scottsdale Endowment, after a Scottsdale, Ariz. bank, supports a university scholarship program for high-achieving freshmen.

South Florida’s gift, too, has been applied to student scholarship money. Announced in February 2008, the anonymous $5 million donation was eligible for a matching gift from the state, and led to the creation of an $8 million endowment for university-wide need-based scholarships – with a focus on female and minority students. “Because this gift shared many of the same characteristics as the gifts currently making the news, including the emphasis on women and minority scholarships,” Jay Wilson, director of foundation communications for South Florida, said in an e-mail, “we believe it is possible, if not probable, that we were among the first in the nation to receive a highly-valued gift from this donor.”

Of course, Wilson continued, he “will never know for certain” if South Florida’s benefactor is indeed the same mystery giver bestowing gifts to other female-led colleges, as the South Florida foundation “respects the anonymity of those donors who seek it.”

Meanwhile, foundation administrators and development coordinators at other colleges that might meet the mystery donor’s criteria admit that, while a gift of that size would be more than appreciated, there is not much they can do to gain an anonymous benefactor’s attention other than wait and hope.

Bentley University in Massachusetts, led by Gloria Cordes Larson, is “obviously … watching this story unfold like the rest of higher education,” said Bob Minetti, vice president for development and corporate and alumni relations. But Bentley is not actively seeking the donor’s attention.


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