Sustainability-minded donors are becoming agents of change

education sustainability donors
Photo courtesy of University of Guelph

In 2018, a €40 million ($61 million) gift marked one of the largest sustainability-linked donations to a global business school.

Swiss billionaire, conservationist and pharmaceutical company scion André Hoffmann and his wife, Rosalie, chose to give to INSEAD, a graduate school based in France with locations on four continents, not for a new building or program but for an idea: to reimagine business as a force for good, not just profit.

While the future of post-pandemic giving is uncertain, philanthropic support for business schools to incorporate sustainability is a budding phenomenon.

Since 2003, the California-based Skoll Foundation has pledged US$16 million to Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, which has attracted other donors for teaching and research linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.

In Canada, philanthropists Rob and Cheryl McEwen donated $8 million in 2019 to York University’s Schulich School of Business for an environmentally friendly building with a 27-metre-high solar chimney for passive natural ventilation. Last year, the University of Guelph received a $21 million donation for its now-named Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics to deepen its commitment to sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Over the past seven years, Goldcorp Inc. pledged $1.8 million to the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business for its Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation.

“Businesses are talking more about a broader sense of purpose and a stakeholder view of business, which would require them to think about sustainability more generally,” says Gustavson dean Saul Klein. He cites three factors driving the trend: consumer loyalty to businesses with aligned values, corporate interest in social values that resonate with top talent, and investor pressure on businesses to demonstrate long-run sustainability.

For Hoffmann, an INSEAD alumni, the sustainability-focused gift was rooted in his wish to modernize an outdated view that “business is business,” defined by profit.

The vice-chairman of Roche Holding, which includes the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company founded by his great-grandfather, told Corporate Knights, “I felt there needed to be some sort of action to make sure that we come back to a more respectful type of society, in particular to measure the impact that companies are having on the planet.”

With the Hoffmann gift, the largest individual donation in INSEAD’s history, the school established the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society to explore sustainability, broadly defined, including wealth inequality and the role of business in society, as reflected in the UN SDGs.

“What we are trying to do with the institute is to change the norm,” says Hoffmann.

The institute promotes cross-disciplinary innovation in teaching and research and collaborates with businesses and non-profit organizations to encourage progressive practices. “The vision we have is of business that integrates societal progress in their value chain,” says executive director Katell Le Goulven, with progress measured against the UN goals. The Hoffmann gift, she adds, enables the school to take its business and society agenda to “the next level of impact.”

What we are trying to do with the institute is to change the norm.”

—André Hoffmann

In its catalyst role, the institute piloted a “Master Strategy Day” (now embedded in the core MBA curriculum) for students to apply classroom theory to the real world. Last year, students assisted healthcare clinics in South Africa to scale up services to underserved areas over the next 10 years, with the institute funding students to travel to work directly with the nurse-run clinics.

At Oxford’s Saïd, dean Peter Tufano says mutual interest fuels donor support for sustainability. “On our side, we are bringing intellectual resources, thought leadership and research, and we embed that into our curriculum and executive education,” he says. “On their side, they are seeing us as a channel for change.”

Last year, Tufano announced the Oxford Initiative on AIxSDGs, partly funded by Microsoft, Google and Facebook, to explore the role of artificial intelligence in advancing the UN sustainability goals.

Sometimes, the environmental profile of a building itself attracts top donors.

For example, Schulich’s new graduate study and research building (named for Rob and Cheryl McEwen) is a showcase for low-energy, advanced environmental design.

“Its simplicity is very striking,” says McEwen, the chairman of McEwen Mining who with his wife has donated more than $60 million to healthcare and education causes. “This could be a model for many buildings in the country where we have very large energy loads to survive the winter and sometimes in summer. This building does it easily without the infrastructure of other buildings.”

Finding the right match with a donor is critical, warns Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of Guelph’s business school when Stu Lang chose to honour his late father, Gordon. “We absolutely pledged to look for donors whose values aligned with our own,” she says of her school, which incorporated sustainability into its mission a decade ago. The Lang gift, for example, supports new research chairs and scholarships with sustainability themes.

Christensen Hughes sees potential for growing donor interest but also cautions, “We are still in the early days.”


Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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