There’s a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago. The second-best time is today.
At George Mason University, we thrive in the shade of trees grown from seeds planted decades ago. That’s why the university’s story wouldn’t be complete without paying special attention to how philanthropy has helped bring Mason to where it is today. From tiny beginnings, the university now raises about $100 million in a typical year, and in the last few years its permanent endowment has grown dramatically, to nearly $200 million.
It may surprise some to think of a public university as benefiting from private donations, but in fact charitable support is a major factor in the success of any growing university, public or private.
“When our alumni and friends donate, they give more than just their money,” says Trishana Bowden, vice president of advancement and alumni relations and president of the George Mason University Foundation. “They give us their vote of confidence. They are choosing to invest in the success of our students. That’s a very important trust, and we seek to honor it every day.”
Setting Down Roots
Like the rest of the university, philanthropy at Mason was in its seedling stages in the 1970s. When George Johnson arrived as president in 1978, he began to bolster the young university by forming close relationships with regional business leaders. Among them was Clarence J. Robinson, a Mason advisor and supporter since the 1960s.
Upon his death in 1983, Robinson’s will granted half of his substantial estate to the university. Robinson had told Johnson that he wanted his bequest spent on people, not buildings. Johnson used the funds to establish the Robinson Professors Program, which attracted some of the nation’s top academics, like scientist Robert Hazen, and renowned professionals, like the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Roger Wilkins. Robinson’s gift was one that helped put Mason on the map.
A few years later, another prominent businessman, Shelly Krasnow, partnered with Mason for the goal of developing a scientific institute “for the betterment of mankind.” When Krasnow died in 1989, the millions generated from his bequest of real estate were used to establish the Krasnow Institute, which contributed greatly to Mason’s emerging stature as a research powerhouse.
That’s not the only time that land donations played a significant role in Mason’s story. Point of View, the conference and retreat center that the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution opened in 2016, is located on 120 acres in southern Fairfax County, a gift from the late Edwin and Helen Lynch. And the university president’s residence and property, known as Mathy House, was obtained in part through a 1983 gift from longtime benefactor Joseph “Sunny” Mathy.
Thirty-seven acres in Loudoun County, donated in 2009 by the Van Metre Corporation, were eventually sold a decade later, generating $20 million in funding for the current expansion of Mason Square (formerly the Arlington Campus).
The George Mason University Foundation (GMUF), the independent nonprofit organization dedicated to accepting private funds for the university’s mission, was formed in 1966. By 1998, the foundation reached what was then a major milestone: Its permanent endowment passed the $25 million mark. That year the foundation launched Mason’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, the aptly named The Campaign for George Mason University. The campaign concluded in 2005, having raised a total of $142 million.
The Arts Grow in the Northern Virginia Community
Beginning in the 1980s, President Johnson focused strongly on the performing arts as a way of uniting the community behind Mason. “George Johnson and his wife, Joanne, organized big fundraising events for the arts. They were very successful, and they really helped get the ball rolling,” says Paul Kyle, a generous donor, fan, and Mason advocate for three decades.
“Many of the real estate developers and the regional banks at that time were leaders and benefactors in supporting Mason,” says Kyle, who joined the foundation’s Board of Trustees in 1998, was chair from 2003 to 2005, and remains a member today. “There was a groundswell of support across that whole community. They all recognized the value of Mason being here.”
The construction and opening of the Center for the Arts in 1990 was among the fruits of the labor of the Johnsons and many others.
The arts have continued to be fertile ground for philanthropy at Mason. “So many people have seen the importance of the arts not just in their own lives, but in the lives of their friends and neighbors and the community at large,” says College of Visual and Performing Arts dean Rick Davis, who arrived at Mason in 1991 and was appointed dean in 2015. “And then they realize that through philanthropy, they can make their love of the arts visible, as a lasting legacy.”
“So, you look around our college and you see great names like de Laski of the beautiful de Laski Performing Arts Building and Dewberry of the Reva and Sid Dewberry Family School of Music—and many more,” Davis continues. “When you get inspired by something, this is a way to give back that can inspire others as well.”
The Giving Tree Blossoms
Our donors often say that at Mason they can see the impact of their gift right away. Because of the university’s youth and its commitment to admitting and graduating students from every background, Mason is a place where donations get put right to use to benefit students.
That was certainly the case with the Student Emergency Assistance Fund begun in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most compelling episodes in the history of philanthropy at Mason, the fund showed the power of many “small” gifts pooled together to make a difference in the lives of students. Through the Patriots Helping Patriots initiative, more than 4,200 donors contributed more than $900,000 to student emergency funds across Mason in a single year—money that helped hundreds of students struggling financially to pay rent, buy textbooks, and stay on track to graduate.
A vital Mason tradition is the forming of “friends of” groups, through which donors engage with each other and with the students their giving supports. Many of these groups center around the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the Center for the Arts, and the Hylton Center and are especially popular and impactful. The Patriot Club, established in 1975, is another group of loyal donors and avid fans who support scholarships and facilities for Mason student-athletes in 22 Division I sports.
Philanthropy at Mason reached new heights with the Faster Farther campaign. By its completion in 2018, the university had raised a record $690 million from 73,000 different donors. This era included the naming of four schools in recognition of extraordinary philanthropic gifts: the Volgenau School of Engineering (2006), the Schar School of Policy and Government (2016), the Antonin Scalia Law School (2016), and the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution (2020).
The naming of the law school was made possible by two of the largest gifts in the university’s history, which funded scholarships for hundreds of law students over five years. More history was made in 2019 when the law school received a bequest of $50 million—the university’s largest ever—establishing the Allison and Dorothy Rouse Endowment, funding 13 new faculty chairs.
The names that grace several campuses bear witness to Mason’s history, honoring families who have made landmark gifts. Names like Nguyen (2009), Hylton (2010), and Peterson (2018), etched on Mason’s brick and steel facades, are tributes to the generosity of those donors. The Hazel name is honored on the law school building in Arlington, and also through faculty positions and scholarships funded by the family.
Many others are recognized within campus buildings, their support enabling the classrooms, labs, galleries, and other spaces that serve the needs of students, faculty, and visitors. Philanthropy also helps fund iconic projects like the Enslaved People of George Mason Memorial, dedicated in April on Wilkins Plaza at the center of the Fairfax Campus.
The Promise of New Growth
Over the next decade, philanthropy will become even more important to the university’s success. While more than 2,200 students receive donor-funded scholarship support annually, thousands more go without. That figure will need to grow dramatically to match the rising need. Similarly, it will take increased philanthropy to fund the endowed chairs and professorships that attract high-caliber faculty members.
Among the ambitious goals for the next several years are an $84 million fundraising need to help construct the new building in Arlington, a potential medical school to be located at the Science and Technology Campus, and a new headquarters for the School of Business.
While in the beginning the regional business community took the lead in building Mason, now the support of our rapidly growing alumni base, currently surpassing 220,000, will be critical to Mason’s success.
“It’s our time as alumni to lead. The responsibility to move Mason forward for the next half century now lies with us,” says Alumni Association president Sumeet Shrivastava, MBA ’94. “Leadership means participating, advocating, and donating. That is how we can carry Mason to even greater heights.”