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  1. Impact Philanthropy
September 20, 2013updated 11 Jan 2016 2:22pm

£75 million McCall MacBain donation to Oxford reinforces need for modern philanthropy; plus, biggest gifts to universities

By Spear's

Good news arrived in my inbox this morning (courtesy S McBain): a Canadian billionaire philanthropist and his wife have given £75 million ($120 million) to Oxford University, in particular to the Rhodes Trust which runs the scholarship scheme for overseas scholars.

John McCall MacBain, who made his money as the owner of Trader Classified Media (remember classified ads?), told a ceremony of Rhodes Scholars at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (pictured below): ‘Receiving the Rhodes Scholarship and attending Oxford were among the highlights of my life. These Scholarships have been helping develop future leaders for over a century.

‘With the world facing ever-increasing challenges, the need to help develop leadership skills is more important than ever. I hope that this gift will help secure them for another 100 years.’

This gift – one of the largest Oxford has ever seen – takes a modern form: £25 million is a guaranteed grant and £25 million is to expand the programme to new locations (currently it’s students from ex-British colonies, including America, in the main) – but £25 million is to match other money raised by the university. This idea of challenge funding is to ensure the recipient doesn’t rest on their new piles of cash but goes out and makes its case to other donors.

Biggest donations

Spear’s has extensively covered educational philanthropy before, including an interview with an equally large donor, Michael Moritz, whose £75 million is meant to stimulate a package of £300 million. These are the biggest donations to the university, although Dr James Martin’s £62 million for the Oxford Martin School for research into 21st-century problems is hardly negligible. (Dr James Martin pictured below.)


I wrote a long piece last year about how Oxford couldn’t indeed survive without philanthropy: it’s still sobering, even as we learn of munificent acts like John and Marcy McCall MacBain’s.

In the eternal Varsity competition, which stretches across every field, Cambridge has the lead for largest donation: Bill and Melinda Gates gave £132 million in 2000; adjusted for inflation, that’s £188 million today. But while Cambridge fundraised £1.17 billion for its 800th anniversary, Oxford Thinking took in £1.3 billion and is now looking to make it £3 billion.

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Of course, all of these donations pale next to American universities. Stephen Ross gave $200 million to the University of Michigan, tiny Centre College in Kentucky got $250 million and Bill and Melinda Gates gave $1 billion for a scholarship programme across different universities. You can browse the Chronicle of Higher Education’s big-gift list here.

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