The College Donor Digest

Unique Gifts to Higher Education

January 15, 2021 | Rebecca Richards

There is no better adjective to describe 2020 than “unprecedented.” This word also fits the generosity of billionaire MacKenzie Scott, who recently gave unrestricted gifts in the amount of $842 million to colleges and universities. Of that amount, according to the Washington Post, at least $5 million went to tribal colleges, $130 million went to five public colleges, $147 million went to Hispanic-serving institutions, and $560 million went to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. During a year that was very financially challenging for institutions of higher education, this level of philanthropy is a welcome and astonishing relief. In honor of the end of the decade, we have selected a short list of prior unprecedented gifts to higher education. Although none of these unique offerings have the financial impact of Ms. Scott’s gifts, they are entertaining glimpses into the individuality of donors and how people think about giving to higher education.

Beloit College—a garden of wildflowers

In 1994, Eloise Marston Schnaitter (class of 1932) gave Beloit College a garden of wildflowers. A biology professor and a student transplanted the 35-foot by 20-foot plot from Ms. Schnaitter’s home to the school. The flowers included lady’s slipper orchids, columbines, and bloodroot and continue to decorate a slope leading from the college to the river.

University of Pennsylvania—a trolley car, a gas station, and Napoleon III’s hair

The University of Pennsylvania has a history of unique gifts, including a trolley car and a gas station. While Penn has sold the gas station, the trolley car (a gift from the class of 1956) still stands as a nostalgic reminder of the times when a light rail network ran across the campus. One half of the trolley is a period recreation of the car, while a stairwell in the other half leads to a current rail station. Another unique gift from alumni, a lock of Napoleon III’s hair, is kept in a vault at the university. In addition, the carriage that his wife used to escape from Paris in 1870 was donated to the school by a dentist who aided her flight.

Tufts University—Jumbo the elephant

In 1885, P. T. Barnum donated many stuffed specimens to Tufts University, including Jumbo, a 13-foot tall elephant. Jumbo became the school mascot and was housed in the Barnum Museum of Natural History until it burned down in 1975. In 2014, Tufts commissioned a life-size statue to be built of Jumbo, funded by a capital campaign. The 5,000-pound statue was finished in 2015 and was unveiled in front of Barnum Hall.

University of Mississippi—King Tut mask

Several years ago, an alumnus donated a bronze, copper, and aluminum King Tut mask to the University of Mississippi. While the university was originally excited to receive the gift, their enthusiasm faded when the mask arrived, at 19 feet tall and weighing one ton.

University of Florida—seashells

Harry Lee, a retired physician, has pledged his collection of ocean shells to the University of Florida. The collection represents 12,000 species and is valued at $1 million. In fact, 19 species of shells have been named after Mr. Lee, who is recognized as a top amateur expert in mollusks. 

The above list features a mere few of the unique items that donors have offered to institutions of higher education over the years. Financial contributions can signify just as much about a donor’s personality and values as some of these unusual gifts. In one intriguing case, from 2008 to 2009, 16 gifts ranging from $1 to $10 million were given to universities led by female presidents, presumably from the same, still unknown benefactor. Strict anonymity was a condition of the gifts, which were often handled through intermediary institutions. Ms. Scott’s donations, while not anonymous, were equally unexpected by the recipient schools. Yet, the colleges and universities were carefully chosen—each school shares a commitment to the social concerns prioritized by Ms. Scott.

If you are making a gift to a college or university in the next year, take the time to consider what your philanthropy communicates about your values. Whether you have a financial contribution, a stuffed elephant, or a begonia, your gift represents you and what you believe is important.



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