As we noted back in the spring, 2011 will be remembered for the unusually large number of eight- and nine-figure gifts and bequests that were announced, as an aging cohort of successful Americans moved to secure their philanthropic legacy.
Indeed, before May was even over, nine nine-figure gifts had been announced by either an individual, couple, or family foundation: an $800 million endowment gift from the Walton Family Foundation to the brand new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the brainchild of Walmart stores heiress Alice Walton; a $200 million "spend down" gift from Las Vegas-based investor Kirk Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation to the University of California, Los Angeles; an unrestricted $200 million endowment gift from long-time supporters Dana and David Dornsife to the University of Southern California and a $110 million gift, also to USC, from John and Julie Mork; a $100 million gift from retired South Dakota banker and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford to Sanford Health; a $100 million gift to the Mayo Clinic from patient and long-time supporter Richard O. Jacobson; a $100 million gift to Ohio State University from Leslie Wexner and the Limited Brands Foundation; a $100 million gift to the Los Angeles-based Petersen Automotive Museum from Margie Petersen and the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Foundation; and a $225 million endowment gift from Raymond and the late Ruth Perelman to the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania -- the largest-ever naming gift to a medical school in the United States.
And that's not counting a $100 million gift to Western Michigan University from a group of donors that wished to remain anonymous, or a $100 million endowment gift to Teach for America from philanthropists Steve and Sue Mandel and the Broad, Laura and John Arnold, and Robertson foundations.
Things settled down a bit after that, as the eurozone debt crisis, the debt-ceiling battle here in the U.S., and reports of a slowing global economy cast a shadow over the economic recovery and contributed to a gut-wrenching few months of volatility in the markets.
Still, the second half of the year was marked by a number of very large gifts and bequests, starting with the annoucement, in late June, that reclusive copper heiress Huguette Clark, who died in May at the age of 95, had left the majority of her estate, worth an estimated $400 million, to establish a foundation that will support the arts. In August, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Virginia Commonwealth University announced a bequest from the trusts of Arthur Graham and Margaret Branch Glasgow that will provide the two institutions with a total of $115 million and thirteen other nonprofits with $10 million. And in November, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University announced a $150 million gift from alumnus Robert King and his wife, Dorothy, to establish the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED).
Two other eye-opining gifts were announced as the year was coming to a close: In December, Stony Brook University on Long Island announced a seven-year, $150 million gift from former math department chair and hedge fund quant genius James H. Simons and his wife, Marilyn, who received her Ph.D. from the school. Awarded through the Simons Foundation, the gift surpassed a previous gift of $60 million to the university from the couple and is the largest gift ever to a State University of New York school and the sixth largest ever to a public university in the U.S.
A few weeks later, Cornell University announced the largest gift in its history, a $350 million gift from alumnus and Atlantic Philanthropies founder Charles F. Feeney -- a recent signer of the Giving Pledge and a vocal advocate of the "giving while living" approach -- in support of its proposal to build a two-million-square-foot graduate science campus in New York City.
And then there was the remarkable story of William S. Dietrich II, a Pittsburgh industrialist who, late in life, made a series of planned bequests to higher education institutions in the Pittsburgh area. In early September, Carnegie Mellon University announced that it had received a $265 million gift from Dietrich -- the largest gift in its history and, like Feeney's, one of the ten largest gifts ever to higher education. Two weeks later, the University of Pittsburgh, from which Dietrich graduated and which he had served as a trustee since 1991, announced that it had received a $125 million gift from Dietrich. Mr. Dietrich passed away on October 6 at the age of 73, but two weeks later it was Duquesne University's turn to announce it had received a gift, $12.5 million, from the industrialist. And then a few weeks later, tiny Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania, announced that Dietrich had left it $25 million, bringing the total dollar amount of his bequests to area institutions to a remarkable $472.5 million.
Somewhere up in that Duquesne Club in the sky, Andrew Carnegie is smiling.