The Largest Donations in Michigan History

The Gilberts set a new giving standard with that $500 million pledge to Detroit, but they’re not the Mitten State’s only megadonors. We ranked them.
largest donations in michigan history
A $100 million donation from real estate conglomerate Stephen M. Ross went to the build of the business school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. // Photo: IStock

In the past four months, Michigan has seen two of the most jaw-dropping philanthropic gifts in American history. First, Dan and Jennifer Gilbert and their affiliated foundations announced a $500 million donation to the City of Detroit which appears to be the largest donation to a U.S. municipality ever. Then, not to be outdone, a group of Western Michigan University alumni in June dropped $550 million on their Kalamazoo alma mater — also a record donation to an American institution of higher learning.

It’s hard to know where these gifts stand in terms of overall individual annals of extreme philanthropy because, while there are notable instances of other gigantic donations — Ted Turner gave $1 billion over 20 years to the United Nations, for instance — most of history’s biggest donations have been by the mega-rich to their own charitable foundations to then dole out in smaller chunks. Regardless, the WMU and Gilbert sums are by far the biggest single contributions of any kind in Michigan history. While nobody — until now! — keeps a running list, Hour Detroit scoured philanthropic records and news reports to assemble the largest donations in Mitten history.

(This list will live be updated as new gifts occur of more than $25 million — or if we learn of other unreported past mega-donations. If you’d like to alert of us a donation that should be added to the list, please email Hour Detroit news and features editor Steve Friess at sfriess@hour-media.com.)


The Largest Donations in Michigan 

$550 million

(2021-2031)

From: Anonymous alumni

To: Western Michigan University

For what: The Empowering Futures Gift, as it is called, includes $300 million for WMU’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, $200 million for need-based financial aid for the undergraduate population, faculty salaries and other programs; and $50 million for athletics.

Origin of wealth: Unknown

$500 million

(2021-2031)

From: Gilbert Family Foundation and Rocket Community Fund

To: City of Detroit

For what: Beyond the first $15 million going to wipe out back real estate taxes for some 20,000 Detroit homeowners, little else had been announced as of press time.

Origin of wealth: Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, is owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and a huge portfolio of downtown Detroit real estate, among other things.

$200 million

(2013)

From: Stephen M. Ross

To: University of Michigan

For what:  Renovations to older Ross School of Business buildings and to U-M Athletics facilities.

Origin of wealth: Ross is the majority owner of The Related Companies, a real estate conglomerate that developed New York City’s Time Warner Center. He is also principal owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. 

$150 million

(2013-2018)

From: Richard and Susan Rogel

To: University of Michigan

For what: The Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is now the Rogel Cancer Center. 

Origin of wealth: Richard Rogel founded the Preferred Provider Organization of Michigan, an insurance company he sold in the 1990s to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. 

$111.2 million+

(2016-2021)

From: Charles Stuart Mott Foundation

To: Various Flint organizations

For what: The Mott Foundation represented the bulk of a $125 million pledge in 2016 that also included contributions from the Ford, Kellogg, Kresge, and Carnegie foundations in response to the health devastation brought on by lead-tainted drinking water in Flint. Mott promised $100 million over five years but actually gave $111.2 million as of April 2021 for a wide range of relief services, including programs to bolster water safety, health care, and education.

Origin of wealth: Mott, who died in 1973, was a co-founder of General Motors and owner of U.S. Sugar.

$110 million

(2013)

From: Charles T. Munger

To: University of Michigan

For what: Construction of the Munger Graduate Residences, an upscale dorm opened in 2015.

Origin of wealth: Munger is vice-chair of Berkshire Hathaway, the investment conglomerate controlled by Warren Buffett.

$100+ million

(2011)

From: Ronda E. Stryker and William Johnston

To: Western Michigan University 

For what: The founding of the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, which was established in 2012.

Origin of wealth: Homer Stryker founded the self-named medical device conglomerate.

$100 million

(2004)

From: Stephen M. Ross

To: Detroit Center for Innovation

For what: A 14-acre development in downtown on the site of the former Wayne County Jail due to break ground this year that will include a 190,000-square-foot academic building affiliated with U-M as well as a business incubator, housing, and a hotel and conference center.

$100 million

(2020)

From: Stephen M. Ross

To: University of Michigan

For what: A new business school building, (pictured at the top).

$60 million

(2015)

From: Sam Zell

To: University of Michigan

For what: An entrepreneurship institute named for him at the Ross School of Business. 

Origin of wealth: Zell founded Equity Groups Investments, a massive real estate conglomerate. He also has owned Schwinn Bicycle Co., Sealy, and the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise.

$56 million

(2011)

From: A. Alfred Taubman

To: University of Michigan

For what: Stem cell and cancer research. As a result, the Biomedical Science Research Building was renamed in his honor, among other campus tributes.

Origin of wealth: Taubman, who died in 2015, was a mall-development pioneer whose holdings were bought out in 2010 by Simon Property Group in a $3.6 billion deal. He gave a total of $141 million to U-M during his life.

$50 million

(2013)

From: Zell Family Foundation

To: University of Michigan

For what: Funding of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). The program was subsequently renamed the Helen Zell Writers’ Program in honor of Sam Zell’s wife, who is executive director of the foundation and a U-M alumna.

$50 million

(2007-2013)

From: Samuel and Jean Frankel Foundation

To: University of Michigan

For what: The cardiovascular center at U-M Health System, which was renamed for them. 

Origin of wealth: Sam Frankel, who died in 2008, developed commercial and residential real estate including what is now Somerset Collection in Troy. 

$44 million

(2004)

From: Delores and William Brehm

To: University of Michigan

For what: To fund expansion of the School of Medicine’s W.K. Kellogg Eye Center with a 222,000-square-foot building that also included space for research into Type 1 diabetes that went on to be known as the Brehm Center for Diabetic Research. 

Origin of Wealth: William Brehm is an engineer who founded SRA International, an information technology firm specializing in military and national security systems. The company merged with another firm in 2015 and eventually was sold in 2018 to General Dynamics for $9.6 billion.

$40 million

(2016)

From: Mike and Marian Ilitch

To: Wayne State University

For what:  Building the new home of WSU’s business school, renamed the Mike Ilitch School of Business in The District Detroit area, which opened in 2018. 

Origin of Wealth: The Ilitches co-founded Little Caesars pizza and own the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, and Olympia Entertainment. Mike Ilitch died in 2017.

$32 million

(2021)

From: Mat Ishbia

To: Michigan State University

For what: To expand MSU’s athletic facilities and support other athletics programs.

Origin of Wealth: Ishbia is CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, the nation’s largest wholesale mortgage company.

$30 million

(2021)

From: Dan and Jennifer Gilbert

To: Cranbrook Academy of Art

For what: Twenty full-tuition scholarships for underrepresented minority students as well as an endowment for future fellowships to attend the Bloomfield Hills graduate school in architecture, art, and design. Jennifer Gilbert chairs the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum board of governors.

$30 million

(2018)

From: Edward J. Minskoff

To: Michigan State University

For what: To complete what became the 100,000-square-foot Minskoff Business Pavilion at MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business. The state-of-the-art academic facility opened
in 2019.

Origin of Wealth: Minskoff is founder of an eponymous real estate firm that owns or manages about 6 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space in Manhattan.

$30 million

(2020)

From: Ron and Eileen Weiser

To: University of Michigan

For what: The establishment of the Elizabeth Weiser Caswell Diabetes Institute, named for their daughter.

$25 million

(2020) 

From: Chris and Lisa Jeffries

To: Henry Ford Health System

For what: To expand Henry Ford’s Precision Medicine program, which focuses on research into cancer, behavioral health, cardiovascular, and metabolic diseases.

Origin of Wealth: Chris Jeffries is co-founder of Millennium Partners, a real estate development firm. 

$25 million

(2020)

From: MacKenzie Scott

To: United Way of Southeastern Michigan

For what: United Way was the largest local beneficiary of a $4.2 billion giving spree Scott went on that included gifts to 384 charities across the U.S. There are no strings attached to the gift, but the intention was to help causes hurt by decreased donations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Origin of Wealth: Scott received more than $35 billion in stock in Amazon.com in her 2019 divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.