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So that all may learn: A just cause

Former President & CEO

Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, inspired the largest gift ever made to public higher education: $550 million.

The gift is $50 million more than the previous record held by a public higher education institution and more than five times greater than Western Michigan University’s previous largest gift. It was made anonymously by a couple who is looking for nothing in return – not even recognition – to benefit themselves. It’s a gift with very few restrictions, made outright over the span of 10 years to the university, its medical school and athletics.

Let’s face it: Gifts of this magnitude are not often made to universities without a household name. I bet many of you have never heard of Western Michigan University, or Western, as it is affectionately called. As The Washington Post noted, the public research university is “often overshadowed by certain other state schools in Ann Arbor and East Lansing.”

Many philanthropic gifts are made every year, and many of these gifts are made to higher education. Education has been the second highest recipient of philanthropy for most of the last 40 years, following only religion in charitable giving. And 2020 was no exception. With $71.34 billion, giving to education comprised 15.1% of all charitable support, with $49.5 billion of this going to higher education. And while there are many reasons why people give to organizations – everything from solidarity and passion to gratitude and, yes, even those less altruistic motives, such as tax breaks and naming rights – a gift like this is truly profound and inspired. A gift like this powers a just cause.

Not Just Any Cause Is a Just Cause

In his book, “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek introduces the term, “just cause.” A just cause is something infinitely bigger than us. Sinek describes a just cause as a future state that does not yet exist – a future state that we wholly dedicate ourselves to build because it’s a world we hope to live in.

Western Michigan University, for example, hopes to live in a world where its purpose, “so that all may learn,” is realized. A world where all students have opportunities to truly transform their lives, their families’ lives, and their communities. A world where all people experience social mobility thanks to support, such as housing and food security, paid internships without the obstacle of lost summer income, and physical and emotional care that must complement academic teachings.

Sinek states that a just cause must meet five standards. It must be for something that we champion rather than against something we oppose. It must be inclusive so that all who choose to participate can. It must be service-oriented to provide primary benefit to others. It must be resilient to withstand economic and cultural headwinds. And it must be idealistic, which he describes as big, bold, and ultimately unachievable. Yes, you read that right: ultimately unachievable.

Indeed, it’s not the achievement of a goal that inspires a gift like this, but rather the worthy and noble pursuit. Isn’t that, when you boil it all down, what philanthropy is really all about? Is a world without poverty, hunger or war actually achievable? The cynic – or realist? – in me says, “of course not.” But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Sinek posits that a cause is just when we commit to it with the confidence that others will carry on the legacy. That is precisely what these donors have done. It may be the just cause of access to education for all that inspired them to give $550 million. It’s even in the gift’s name: “Empowering Futures.” But it was their confidence and trust in Western Michigan University and its leadership that ultimately fueled their investment.

Vicarious Achievement

Transformational gifts like this one create a sense of vicarious achievement: the feeling of achievement people experience as a result of watching, listening to or reading about the activities of others, rather than by doing it themselves. A sports fan who has experienced that immense sense of personal accomplishment – the rush of adrenaline and pride – when his or her home team wins a major championship knows what this feels like. We shout, “We won!”, not “The team I cheer for won.” In large part, it’s what keeps fans coming back.

I imagine current and future students and alumni are elated and uber proud of this gift to their alma mater. So, too, are their families who can claim, “My child went there!” or “My cousin is there!” I imagine that the people of Kalamazoo are excited and proud, as well. I imagine there are many people around the country with sentiments ranging from awestruck to incredulous, unable to fathom having the means to make a gift of this size. Take heart, most of us cannot.

And I imagine many will be inspired to make a gift of their own. To be sure, there will be million-dollar gifts. But there will also be many, many smaller gifts – smaller in size but not significance – made by people inspired by this mega gift. People that are inspired by the just cause and energized by the feeling of vicarious achievement.

That’s how philanthropy works: it allows even the most modest gift to have exponential impact, powered by the collective generosity of people united in their pursuit of a just cause.