Ronald P. Stanton is hoping his gift to Yeshiva University, announced this week, will spur other Jewish philanthropists to give to major donations to Jewish causes in general and YU in particular.
At $100 million — what appears to be the largest gift ever to a Jewish educational institution — it certainly will attract attention.
“I’m hoping that this contribution will trigger more” donations to YU, said Stanton, 78, a New Yorker who has made his fortune trading and transporting petrochemicals and chemical fertilizers.
“I’m hoping that we can raise $1 billion, that this will raise the bar,” he told The Jewish Week. “There are lots of gifts of $1 million or $2 million, but now we want to get people to stretch a little bit. If we get to that point the university can become much more influential outside of its immediate circle. The potential is definitely there.”
Stanton also said that he wants to spur giving to Jewish groups in general. “I’m sorry that this is the largest gift ever” to a Jewish organization, said Stanton. “There are plenty of people who could do it, but most substantial philanthropy goes to non-Jewish causes.” Stanton said his “main interest is cultural,” adding that “I’m not terribly Orthodox in a conventional sense.”
It was Stanton, who as chairman of the board of trustees of YU oversaw the hiring of Richard Joel as president three years ago. In that time, Joel has been working to recast YU as a Jewish university on an academic par with other top private American universities.
The money, Joel said in an interview, will help the process. It won’t be devoted to any single project, but instead will create the Ronald Stanton Legacy, a fund which will provide seed money for a variety of university endeavors, he noted.
“I went to him with different naming opportunities and he rejected them all,” said Joel. “He wants us to have a fund to use the money to build a building, and if we need to hire new faculty, and then make it a revolving fund and replenish it once we get more donations” for each project, he said. “It’s both an endowment and working money at the same time.”
Some officials at YU are hoping that there will be more hiring of tenured faculty — Joel hired 34 tenure-track faculty positions last year — and Joel has spoken of plans to add 1,000 undergraduates over the next several years. There are now close to 3,000 students at the men’s and women’s campuses, and 7,000 including YU’s various graduate schools.
Part of Stanton’s goal in making this large gift is to motivate other philanthropists.
In American philanthropy in general, gifts of $100 million to universities and hospitals have become frequent, if not quite commonplace, according to Stacy Palmer, editor in chief of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.When in June Warren Buffett pledged to give away most of his stock holdings – worth an estimated $40 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Palmer looked back to see how many gifts of $100 million or more had been made to non-profits since January. There were more than a dozen, she said, making this the first year in which there have been so many.
“As the economy has gotten better we’re seeing more of these. It’s also a sign that people are asking for more sophisticated and bigger gifts,” she said. According to Gary Tobin, an expert on mega-giving in the Jewish community, “We often see gifts from Jews of $20 million or $50 million or even $100 million to higher education or health organizations,” but not to Jewish groups. Publishing and real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, for example, donated $100 million to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in May.
What’s new with the Stanton gift to YU “is seeing it given from a Jew to a Jewish organization. Jews tend to give $1 million to a Jewish organization and $50 million to a non-Jewish organization. So this would be a tremendous breakthrough in setting new standards,” said Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research.Stanton isn’t the first to pledge such a sum to a Jewish institution of higher education, but he may become the first to actually give it. In March 2004, Alfred Mann pledged $100 million to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to establish a biomedical engineering institute. None of that money has yet been received by the Technion, according to a spokesman, but it hopes to receive the initial portion in the next month.
Stanton says that he plans to provide YU with the first part of his donation soon, and to have it all in place within a few years. Yeshiva University may be the recipient of the most significant expression of his philanthropic largesse, but it is not the only one. Stanton, who has been a on the YU board of trustees since 1976, is also on the boards of Lincoln Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital and the Heschel School, and is making significant contributions to them, he said, though together those gifts add up to less than half of what he is giving YU.
“Instead of making a lot of small contributions, I believe in making a few where you can make an impact. I have five or six institutions I’m involved with, and I’d like to emphasize that I’m not interested in expanding the list.”
The Upper East Side resident is chairman of Transammonia Group, a multinational corporation that has 30 offices all over the world, from Connecticut to Egypt and Jordan. In 2005 it grossed $6.1 billion, dealing in over 33 million tons of chemicals. It is the largest private company in the world merchandising and trading fertilizer and fertilizer components. It was ranked 35th among the top 500 privately held companies in the United States by Forbes magazine.
Stanton was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and lived in Mainz until he was nine years old, when he and his mother came to the U.S. by boat, escaping Hitler in 1937. His parents had divorced when he was just one, but his father eventually also came to the U.S. Stanton’s paternal grandparents stayed behind, and were part of a group of Jews in Wiesbaden who committed suicide when they were about to be sent to a concentration camp. Stanton and his mother belonged to Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, on the Upper West Side, to which he still belongs. When Stanton was just 14, Rabbi David de Sola Poole wrote a letter to his mother offering to pay for the teen to attend rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, and, if he was successful, to have him succeed him as spiritual leader of the historic synagogue.
But Stanton went a different way. Instead, he attended City College, where he got an undergraduate degree before becoming “a soda jerk,” he said, and in 1950 entered the business he remains in today. His two young children – ages 6 and 8 – attend the Heschel School. They are, he says wryly, the same age as the grandchildren he has through his son, Oliver Stanton, who is 42 and the product of his first marriage. He made the $100 million gift now because “I’m getting on in years, so I feel I have to do something before I croak,” Stanton said, with a little laugh.