The university president and his top fundraiser arrived at the donor’s home one day last April. Their host, an alumnus, had supported the university faithfully since his first contribution, for $25, in 1980. His gifts had grown over four decades to include the endowment of a small scholarship at its school of fine arts, where he had earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees.
A classically trained professional musician, the donor had forged a successful career that earned him a bit of fame but certainly not the wealth that brings a major university’s top brass to one’s doorstep. Nonetheless, a friend of the donor had suggested to the university that he wanted to do more — much more, as it turned out.
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- The Philanthropy 50
- America’s Top Donors Are Helping to Shape the Future in an Old-Fashioned Way
- How Billionaires Found Joy With $1 Million Gifts to Small Nonprofits
- McPherson College Aimed to Bring Big Donors Into the Fold — and Won a $500 Million Pledge
- What’s Next for America’s Biggest Donors
- Philanthropy 50 Donors’ Giving to and From Their Foundations and Donor-Advised Funds in 2022
- 2022’s Top Donors: ‘Forbes 400' and ‘Giving Pledge’ Billionaires Who Gave Big
- 2022’s Top Donors: Where They Live, Where They Give, and More
A classically trained musician, the donor had forged a successful professional career that earned him a bit of fame but certainly not the wealth that brings a major university’s top brass to one’s doorstep. Nonetheless, a friend had suggested to the university that the man wanted to do more — much more, as it turns out.
That April conversation led within a few months to one of 2022’s largest and most remarkable gifts: $100 million to Boston University. The donor, Edward Avedisian, a retired clarinetist with the Boston Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestra, had amassed a fortune through decades of diligent saving and savvy investing. Few knew about his market wins, however, as Avedisian lived humbly and conducted his philanthropy quietly.
Says BU development chief Karen Engelbourg, who visited Avedisian that April day with university president Robert Brown: “I don’t think we really knew at that moment the scale and scope of the impact that he would like to have.”
The gift by Avedesian illustrates how the roster of megadonors in America is expanding, if only at the margins. The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 ranking of the top donors of 2022 features the usual assortment of household names in philanthropy — Bill Gates (No. 1 in the ranking), Michael Bloomberg (No. 3), Warren Buffett (No. 4). The Bezos clan even claims two spots on the list: Amazon founder Jeff at No. 18, and his mother, Jacklyn, and her husband, Miguel, at No. 5.
As in years past, a large share of 2022’s biggest donors are finance and tech moguls. Pierre Omidyar (No. 12), founder of eBay, and his wife, Pam, appear on the list for the 19th time.
Still, this year’s Philanthropy 50 includes 26 donors making their debut. Many lack a national profile, Wall Street credentials, or a Silicon Valley address. They include Avedisian, the only professional clarinetist in the 23-year history of the ranking. There’s also the founder of auto-parts and grocery-store chains. A Utah ranching and farming family. A lawyer who’s argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. A business executive dubbed by Forbes as the world’s richest restaurateur. And a former college professor with a doctorate in meat science and two national championships as coach of university meat-judging teams.
Some of these benefactors are hiding in plain sight. Nonprofits in St. Petersburg, Fla., discovered a “secret millionaire” when 96-year-old David Baldwin (No. 27) died and left $74.3 million to charities, most of them area education and human-service groups. Before his death, Baldwin showed up for a tour of Academy Prep Center driving a beat-up old Cadillac. He had started giving to the school about a decade earlier with a $5,000 contribution; his bequest was $9.5 million — three times the school’s annual budget and nine times more than its previous largest gift.
Even as the number of multimillionaires grows, fundraisers say it’s harder to pick them out of the donor database.
The flux in the ranking reflects in part the country’s skyrocketing wealth. More than 140,000 Americans enjoy wealth of $50 million or more — nearly four times more than just a decade ago, according to the finance giant Credit Suisse. Growth accelerated during the pandemic, with the number climbing 75 percent in just two years. Worldwide, billionaires were minted at the rate of one every 17 hours in 2021, Forbes reported.
The rise of the super wealthy coincides with and fuels another trend: the proliferation of fundraising sophistication and the ambition to snare big gifts. Top-tier, high-profile institutions such as Boston University, the Obama Foundation, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art garnered individual donations of at least $10 million from Philanthropy 50 donors in 2022. But so did the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation; McPherson, a small liberal-arts college in Kansas; and Samford, a Christian university in Alabama.
Altogether, half of the Philanthropy 50 made contributions to organizations that reported the donation as the largest in their history. Half of the 34 gifts to U.S. higher education went to institutions in the interior of the country, some to land-grant universities such as Oregon State, Purdue, and Utah State. The University of Pennsylvania was the lone recipient in the Ivy League.
Elites and big public universities like the University of Michigan have had a decades-long head start in big-gift fundraising, says Tom Kissane, vice chairman of CCS Fundraising, a nationwide consultancy. But the field is catching up. “This tells you that a president or a board or a chief development officer has been able to thoughtfully engage donors and help drive them to a particular proposition.”
‘I Don’t Even Like the Opera’
Many of the newcomers to the ranking fit into a class of philanthropists you might call “everyday megadonors.” These are individuals who don’t routinely make the Philanthropy 50 and whose wealth doesn’t land them on lists of the richest Americans. Nor do they always create big foundations or complex giving apparatus. Still, they have the wherewithal to make eight- and nine-figure gifts on occasion or as a bequest.
Harry and Linda Fath (No. 11), who debuted on the Philanthropy 50 in 2017, could be a model for the newcomers. The Cincinnati real-estate developer and his wife have backed their hometown nonprofits for years. “I became president of the opera, and I don’t even like the opera,” Harry says.
Around 2017, inspired by Warren Buffett’s strategy of funneling large sums to a relatively small number of organizations, the two began consolidating their giving. Like Buffett, the Faths don’t have a foundation. The costs siphon off money that should go to the charitable work itself, Harry says.
Generally, the couple look for well-run organizations that change people’s lives. Since 2017, they have donated more than $100 million to Mercy Ships, which provides free health care in Africa. They made their first gift to the organization, a $100,000 check, after it was featured on 60 Minutes. When they traveled to see the group’s work and talked with founder Don Stephens, their contributions grew. “Don’s the most humble guy I’ve ever met,” Harry says.
Last year, the Faths gave $200 million in scholarship aid, parceling out $50 million each to: St. Xavier High, Harry’s alma mater in Cincinnati; a Catholic inner-city schools foundation; Xavier University, also in Cincinnati; and the law school at Notre Dame, where he got his undergraduate degree. “I’m a big believer in meritocracy,” Harry says. Scholarships to rigorous schools, he says, can change the lives of young people.
This year’s Philanthropy 50 first-timers share much in common with the Faths. As a group, they practice fairly traditional philanthropy, seemingly unaffected by debates over Bill Gates’s data-driven giving or MacKenzie Scott’s trust-based philanthropy. Nineteen of the 26 gave to schools, colleges, or scholarship programs — common recipients of Philanthropy 50 dollars. Venture capitalist John Martinson (No. 46) spread $44.7 million to four institutions of higher learning, including his two alma maters: Purdue University and the Air Force Academy.
These donors often have long-time passions for causes and deep connections to the institutions they support. Sisters Mary Bastian and Emily Markham (No. 49), part of a multigenerational ranching and farming family in Utah, donated 100 acres to Utah State University to establish an agricultural education center. Their brother, David Bastian, who died in 2016, frequently turned to university experts for advice on land management and farming issues.
“The Bastians wanted to ensure that their heritage of agriculture was passed on for generations to come,” says Jacob Anderson, the sisters’ attorney.
Avedisian’s gift to Boston University was an example of a stealth multimillionaire giving to what he loves. The son of Armenian immigrants who survived that country’s genocide in the mid-1910s, Avedisian grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Pawtucket, R.I., and attended Boston University with the help of scholarships. He began seriously investing in the 1980s, he told the Boston Globe before his death in December. At one point, he was making trades through more than a dozen brokers.
As his wealth grew, so did his support for Armenian causes, particularly the American University of Armenia, where he contributed to expansions of its campus and academic programs. In 2022, he gave $1.8 million to the university to endow two professorships.
Avedisian’s connections to BU were many, but the most pivotal to the $100 million gift was his friendship with Aram Chobanian, president emeritus and former dean of the university’s medical school. Chobanian, another son of Armenian immigrants, had lived a few doors away from Avedisian in Pawtucket.
Avedisian (No. 20) said he wanted to honor Chobanian’s work at the medical school, where the renowned cardiologist has been affiliated for 60 years. The doctor, however, balked at such recognition until it was decided that the two would share the honor. It’s the first building named for Avedisian.
“Both men are very, very humble,” BU president Brown said at the time. “Really old school.”
Relationships were vital to the $44 million gift that Gordon and Joyce Davis (No. 45) made to Texas Tech’s agricultural college last year. The couple’s first gift to the university in 1984 came while Gordon was teaching on the West Texas campus — he remembers it as a $1,000 donation. That same year, Gordon started a multimedia education-curriculum company, now called iCEV. Gordon left academia in 1990 to run the business full time, and their gifts to Texas Tech grew. Among them: two contributions of $500,000 each to the agricultural college’s department of animal and food sciences.
After Gordon sold iCEV — a “10-figure company,” he says — in 2021 for what he describes as a “king’s ransom,” the couple considered five recipients for a large gift, including Future Farmers of America and Washington State University, his undergraduate alma mater. But their long relationship with Texas Tech gave the university an edge. Joyce is an alumna; during a decade teaching at the agricultural college, Gordon coached its meat-judging team and helped turn the squad into a juggernaut (16 national titles and counting). They have lived near campus for more than 40 years and know lots of students and faculty. When Gordon, 77, spoke at the gift announcement, he choked up with emotion.
The two also put a lot of faith in president Lawrence Schovanec. Like Gordon, he grew up on a dairy farm where the day’s best job might be shoveling manure. “I don’t give to anyone unless I like them,” Gordon says.
Ultimately, the couple picked Texas Tech because it committed to making the university and West Texas exemplars of agricultural excellence. “Agriculture doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” Gordon says. “I call it a sleeping giant. And I want to see this giant recognized one day.”
The gift wasn’t an “aw shucks” agreement between small-town friends, says Byron Kennedy, Texas Tech’s advancement chief. “What you see is an alignment of vision and a belief in impact that’s incumbent on all nonprofits to offer.”
Even as the number of multimillionaires grows, fundraisers say it’s harder to pick them out of the donor database. A stock portfolio like Avedisian’s doesn’t reveal itself in wealth screenings. Fundraisers once could estimate the wealth of business owners by the size of their operations and payroll, says Jennifer Filla, founder of Aspire Research Group and a prospect-research expert. The digital nature of today’s work, however, means a few remote employees can run big companies.
With older people who made their money years ago, evidence of their wealth rarely makes the leap to digital databases or the internet. Also, wealthy individuals increasingly try to wipe out their digital financial footprint. “The higher the net worth, the fewer the visible assets,” Filla says.
At Texas Tech, president Schovanec was surprised to discover that the Davises were quite well off. “He had no idea what we were capable of doing,” Gordon says.
Gordon Davis and Texas Tech’s president both grew up on dairy farms. “I don’t give to anyone unless I like them,” Davis says.
Many organizations are using sophisticated data analytics and prospect research to identify donors who can make significant gifts. Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics may soon aid in that search. Still, most fundraisers say that building relationships across all giving levels will always be the key. “We don’t know who the millionaire next door might be,” says Engelbourg, who helped usher Avedisian’s BU gift to the finish line.
Filla says little things matter, like quick-turnaround gift-acknowledgment letters and thank-you phone calls. And pay attention to how much donors give and how frequently. “Giving data is still the best signal of your best donors,” she adds.
Lacey Nash Miller was new as director of development at Academy Prep in St. Petersburg — her first job leading a fundraising team — when that initial $5,000 check from David Baldwin arrived. She met him and learned that he was giving to causes that his late wife cared about. Academy Prep is a tuition-free school for students living in poverty.
Baldwin’s gift didn’t make him a major-gift prospect, but Nash Miller stayed in touch with check-in phone calls, emailed videos, thank-you cards from students, and more. His annual gifts grew to $17,000. Once, when he mistakenly made his annual gift twice, he told Nash Miller to just keep it all.
Nash Miller last saw him in October 2019, when he toured Academy Prep’s new organic garden and multipurpose building. Afterward, he shared stories about his life and his World War II service with a social-studies class. Students hung on his words, Nash Miller says, and the donor’s eyes sparkled.
“Those kids lit David Baldwin up,” Nash Miller says.
Seeing the school’s teachers and staff at work made all the difference, she says. “I could have stewarded that gift perfectly every step of the way, but if he felt that we didn’t have an impactful mission, it’s not going to go anywhere.”