The Intense Loyalties Behind an Alumni Couple's $50 Million Gift

Ronald Weiser and his wife Eileen recently gave $50 million to the University of Michigan, which they both attended. The money is being parsed out through many different entities on the Michigan campus, with the renaming of several buildings along the way.

The motivations behind this gift—the kind that many schools dream of—involve some common themes we've recently explored at IP. 

For starters, this is another example of how generous double alumni couples can be—couples who have "twice the loyalty" to their alma maters, which are more common than you might think. If campus development offices don't have a way to identify high-net-worth alum couples, that should be a priority.

Second, this is also an example of the power of geography and loyalty to place in motivating giving. Ronald Weiser was born in Indiana and graduated from Michigan Ross School of Business in 1966, later doing postgraduate work at the business and law schools. After that, he never really left Ann Arbor, where he founded McKinley Associates, a real estate investment company headquartered in town that clearly has done well. 

Weiser not only built a successful business in Michigan; he has also been deeply involved in civic and political life in the state for years. He's served as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia. Other positions include serving as Michigan finance chair under President Bush.

Eileen's resume of civic boosterism is just as extensive. She served as the Executive Director of the McKinley Foundation, a local community foundation, for more than a decade. She's also served on the Michigan State Board of Education and on Michigan State Board Professional Standards Commission for Teachers. The couple's philanthropic work has included steady funding toward Detroit Institute of the Arts, Legacy Land Conservancy in Ann Arbor and the Detroit Zoological Society. 

Can it be any surprise that this couple would choose to lavish millions on Michigan's flagship university? We see this kind of thing all the time: civic pride turning in campus dollars. 

The Weisers have given millions to their alma mater over the years, including establishing the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia at the University of Michigan International Institute back in 2008. Their latest gift puts the couple's total giving at nearly $100 million. And herein lies another key theme: Past giving often leads to more giving. Or, to put this another way: If you want a big gift, ask somebody who's already given a big gift

It's also worth noting that Weiser is one of several philanthropists I've written about recently who is deep into the idea of "economic freedom" and other libertarian principles. Weiser reportedly played a role in making Michigan a "Right to Work" state, a measure aimed at blunting the power of unions. 

Related - Koch Money on Campus: Who's Getting Grants and For What? 

As it relates to University of Michigan, the Weisers' beliefs are part of the reason why they established the Weiser Center in 2008, which studies "how democracies emerge" and "the conditions necessary for assuring and extending political, social, and economic freedom." 

What's interesting about all this is that the Weisers' gift comes around the same time that Weiser lost a campaign to join Michigan's Board of Regents. The campaign even launched an extensive website. While it's clear that the couple's role at University of Michigan is not without opponents, many of these funders—the Koch brothers are another—appear willing to continue fighting the good fight to tilt campus life rightward. 

Of the Weisers' $50 million gift, about half will go to programming at the Weiser Center. Other funds will go to renovations at the Ross School of Business, along with supporting programs such as the Weiser Family Entrepreneurship Awards and the Multidisciplinary Action Projects, which fosters connections between MBA students and business corporations. An unspecified portion of the donation will be allotted to the Michigan Health System's Food Allergy Center, where one of the Weisers' daughters-in-law serves as the chair of its advisory board. (Chalk up one gift for food allergy research, a growing area of funder interest.) Funds will also target athletic facilities.

For more on individual giving to colleges and universities, see Campus Cash.