Harvard Still Awaiting Ellison's Donation

Larry Ellison, chairman of the software company Oracle, pledged $115 million to Harvard University last year. Ten months later, the money hasn’t arrived. Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, discusses Ellison's pledge with Madeleine Brand.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. We've talked a lot about the philanthropy of billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates this week. Well, another billionaire also has a reputation as a big donor. He is Larry Ellison, Chairman of the software company Oracle. A year ago, Ellison promised $115 million to Harvard. That got him on Forbes list of top philanthropists. But he has yet to make good on that pledge, Harvard has not received a dime.

Stacy Palmer is here, she's editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. And, Stacy, this would have been the single biggest donation in Harvard's history. Why did Ellison promise this big amount of money?

Ms. STACY PALMER (Editor, The Chronicle of Philanthropy): He donated it in part because he was attracted to what he could do in the global health area, which is, obviously, a very popular cause with billionaires these days. And he thought that Harvard had some very good plans to make a difference.

BRAND: And what was the money specifically for?

Ms. PALMER: It was to set up a research institute that would focus on global health issues, and coming up with the best research. And, in a way, some of those ideas, might be the ideas that flow into something like what Gates and Buffett are trying to do.

BRAND: And this would be something...

Ms. PALMER: The (unintelligible) the R & D of the global health area.

BRAND: Malaria vaccines, things like that?

Ms. PALMER: Exactly.

BRAND: Well, why hasn't he followed through?

Ms. PALMER: That's a little unclear, but part of it is because it was tangled up as part of a lawsuit he was trying to settle in which he was going to be required to give money away. And that lawsuit has become quite a mess and so the gift got tangled up in that. And it appears that until the lawsuit get settled, the money may not come to Harvard and it may never come to Harvard.

BRAND: This is an insider-trading lawsuit?

Ms. PALMER: Yes.

BRAND: And part of it is that he needs to give money away to charity as part of the settlement?

Ms. PALMER: Exactly. That was one of the agreements that he had decided to make. And that's something that's fairly common in court cases, but never to this extent to have that much money being given away. But this idea sort of compulsorily philanthropy is a penalty that courts have decided is a good thing for society.

BRAND: Well, would it be a good thing for Harvard then?

Ms. PALMER: If the money eventually goes to them it will be very helpful to them, and it will probably go to them without to many strings attached. But if he's changed his mind, and he decided that he wanted it to go some place else, then Harvard could lose out and wont get a chance at the money.

BRAND: Do you know if Harvard is looking for other donors for this project?

Ms. PALMER: I assume that they are looking for it, they've geared up, they're very excited about it. And there are a lot of donors who are interested in this area, so they maybe able to raise the money, but that's a huge amount of money to start an institute. So whether anybody else is willing to put up the big share is a huge question.

BRAND: I guess they could go to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ms. PALMER: They certainly could, but whether they want to start something by Mr. Ellison, it is unclear to me.

BRAND: Um, is this a problem, in general? Because I remember several years back Ted Turner promised a huge amount of money to the U.N. and that didn't materialize.

Ms. PALMER: Yes, it sometimes happens because philanthropists aren't always doing well in their financial life, or as well as they expected, that they just can't make good on their pledges. And non-profits don't like to talk about that a lot, so you don't hear a lot of publicity, except in those very big cases where money is fallen through.

But it does happen sometimes, and that's why often there are legal agreements that non-profits negotiate with donors to say, you've promise to make this money. But there is nothing that can force people to give money away, it's really not something that you can make a court of law say you have to give the money just because you promised it.

BRAND: Stacy Palmer is editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. PALMER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of Music)

BRAND: And we have this update, the Associated Press reports that Larry Ellison has settled his insider-trading lawsuit. But instead of donating to Harvard, he's begun paying a $100 million gift to a non-profit medical association. A Harvard spokeswoman says the university hasn't heard anything more about its gift. And we also called Ellison's company, Oracle, seeking comment on the Harvard donation. His spokeswoman said, quote, “we do not have any information on Mr. Ellison's plans.” DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment.

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