The College Donor Digest

Case Study: Commit to Your Goals, but Be Flexible

April 28, 2023 | Emily Burden Rees

Sometimes a higher education donor’s initial idea for a gift undergoes significant transformation before it is finalized. Many details are subject to change during the planning process, from the payout timeline and amount to the gift recipient and how the gift is used. Donors can be more effective when they commit to their goals but remain flexible in negotiating details. 

Donors can start by articulating their goals. When philanthropists communicate what they most want to accomplish through their gift, whether general (like increasing research) or specific (like funding a course on civic leadership), the college or university is better able to come up with a mutually satisfactory agreement that can make the most meaningful impact. 

Mark and Robyn Jones, who took 26th place on the 2022 “Philanthropy 50” list, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual compilation of the top 50 donors in the U.S., knew they wanted to invest in medical education in the state of Montana. However, the gift they first envisioned changed during a discussion with administrators at Montana State University (MSU). 

Mr. and Mrs. Jones, originally from Alberta, Canada, camped and skied in Montana as children; now, they own hundreds of thousands of acres and a second home there. After so much time in Big Sky Country, the couple was surprised to learn that the state lacked a medical school. In February 2021, they approached Montana State University about creating one, but even with the Joneses as anchor investors, administrators worried about the project’s significant cost and losing recently graduated doctors to more profitable cities. 

MSU proposed an alternative: give to the College of Nursing to help alleviate the statewide lack of healthcare professionals. In 2022, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reported that more than 90% of counties have a shortage of primary care and mental health providers.  

The couple accepted the proposal, making a historic $101 million gift to Montana State University to expand the nursing college to additional campuses across the state, build better facilities, endow five faculty professorships, create scholarships, and start a midwifery program. The Joneses’ gift is the largest in history to a U.S. nursing school and will increase the accessibility and quality of medical services for rural and Native American communities. 

In an interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Mr. Jones remarked, “We don’t call it a gift. We describe it as an investment that we believe will literally transform the health care landscape of Montana.” 

By committing to a concrete goal to fund medical education but being open to university officials’ advice, Mr. and Mrs. Jones avoided wasting their funds, and MSU's time and talent on training medical professionals likely to leave the state after graduation. The end result honors the couple’s original intent while making a powerful difference for Montanans across the state. 


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