Nike Founder's $500 Million Challenge Could Change U.S. Philanthropy

The $500 million challenge grant announced in September by Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife in support of Oregon Health & Science University's Knight Cancer Institute has the potential to change U.S. philanthropy, the Portland Tribune reports.

The challenge grant is unprecedented in that it stipulates that the OHSU Foundation raise $500 million in matching funds within two years — a condition of the grant that Knight did not discuss with OHSU officials before he made the announcement, the Tribune reports. No donor in the history of U.S. philanthropy has publicly attached such a large challenge grant to such a short matching period. Indeed, most challenge grants, which typically are announced late in a capital campaign, stipulate five- to seven-year match periods, Steven Lawrence, the Foundation Center's director of research, told the Tribune.

With the clock on the two-year deadline ticking, the OHSU Foundation will not have time to hire and train new fundraising staff to help with the effort. Instead, most of its current staff will be asked to focus on the Knight challenge, while outside consultants will be hired to handle its other fundraising efforts. Foundation president Keith Todd told the Tribune that he expects to raise about half the amount from donors in Oregon and half from donors outside the state. But fundraising experts interviewed by the Tribune said they doubted there is $250 million available in Oregon for the effort. Kevin Johnson, who heads Retriever Development Counsel and consults with Oregon philanthropists and foundations, told the Tribune that OHSU will need to think beyond just the United States. "It's going to force them to play on the national and world stage."

At the same time, the challenge has other nonprofit leaders in the state worried about its impact on funding for their programs. "I'm sure a lot of nonprofits in Portland are wringing their hands right now, woe is us," said Larry Johnson, author of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising. "My response to them is that $500 million was never going to be available to them. People give what they want to give. This is actually going to grow philanthropy in Oregon if it's done right."

Still, some experts told the Tribune they don't believe the foundation will be able to raise the matching funds in time, while others predicted that if the university is close to raising the match at the end of two years, Knight will extend the deadline. All agreed, however, that if OHSU can raise $500 million in two years, it could change the face of philanthropy nationwide by raising the stakes in a field where even those whose job is to ask for large sums of money never imagined they would be asking for this much.

One of them, Greg Chaille, former president of the Oregon Community Foundation and a member of the OHSU Foundation board, said he likes the idea of finding a hundred people willing to pledge or give $5 million each to join a club that includes Phil Knight. "You're not meeting Knight's match," said Chaille. "You're joining together to attain a billion dollars. The more communal you can make this the easier the fundraising will be."

Peter Korn. "Who Gives?." Portland Tribune 10/17/2013.