Cancer, Sports, and Business: Phil Knight's Charitable Darlings

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) alumni Phil Knight last Friday promised the school $500 million for cancer research on the condition that it can garner another $500 million in support from elsewhere over the next two years. This gift is the latest in a series of three from the Nike cofounder and his wife, Penny, to OHSU. The Knights gave the school $100 million for the Knight Cancer Institute in 2008 and $125 million late last year to set up a cardiovascular institute at the university's hospital.

Knight Cancer Institute Director Brian Druker told that the money collected by the school through this campaign will fund early cancer detection and treatment. Specifically, Druker said, the institute is looking toward the following:

...imaging technologies that allow us to understand how our molecularly targeted therapeutics are working, and [establishing] genome sequencing and computational biology efforts that allow us to decode this information as quickly as possible and to get this quickly into the clinic.

The story of Knight's large-scale philanthropic interventions begins in the mid-1990s. He gave somewhere around $230 million to University of Oregon athletics between 1995 and 2005. He and his wife gave another $100 million to the school's Athletics Legacy Fund in 2007. After several years of bad press over Nike's use of sweatshop labor, the Knights left the athletics racket and took their giving franchise a few hundred miles south on Interstate 5 and set up at OHSU.

A sidebar to that main story is the support Knight has given to Stanford University, the school from which he earned his MBA in 1962. In 1999, he funded the construction of the business school's Knight Building, and in 2006 he gave another $100 million to the Stanford University School of Business. His most recent investment, in 2009, was an additional $100 million used to set up an institute for training and fostering entrepreneurship in developing countries.

History suggests that Knight is willing to give to schools in the Pacific Northwest, primarily those with which he has some personal affiliation. As OHSU folks told, "The Knights feel urgency on the cancer subject." Apparently they also feel some urgency for the academic study of entrepreneurship, if the gifts to Stanford are an indicator.