One of the interesting subjects that is kept under wraps is this: top colleges have had their admissions and alumni offices get together to carefully model what kind of high school applicants are likely to donate the most money to their alma maters in the long run. But, that information is treated like the President's nuclear football, so I can only guess based on anecdotal information about huge donors.
As far as I can tell from reading articles about 9-digit donors is that a one word description for many of the really big donors is jock: white, male, straight, athletic, competitive, fraternity-joining, and pretty conservative.
To be a big donor it also helps to have legacy ties to the college: either your parents or your children should go to the college.
For example, I first got interested in this subject reading about the first $100 million donor to USC. He was the shotputter on the USC track team, son of two USC grads, then started a steel fabrication company in Fresno.
For example, today we learn:
Billionaire Silicon Valley real estate developer John Arrillaga recently wrote Stanford University a $150 million check—the single largest donation from a living individual in the school’s history.
Arrillaga’s 9-figure donation is the latest in a long line of donations to the school, which began with a 2-figure donation shortly after he graduated in 1960, according to a letter published today from Arrillaga’s daughter, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen.
She's the wife of Netscape web browser developer Marc Andreesen.
Arrillaga, now 76, grew up in poor in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood and arrived at Stanford in 1955 on a basketball scholarship. He worked six jobs in college to pay for living expenses, his daughter wrote.
The name "Arrillaga" is of Basque origin from the Franco-Spanish border region. If Basques are Hispanic, then he is one of three Hispanics on the Forbes 400, along with a Miami Cuban real estate developer and Arte Moreno, the billboard king who is a genuine Mexican-American.
The Arrillaga name graces eight buildings at Stanford—the Arrillaga Alumni Center, the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation, the Arrillaga Dining Service Building, the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, the Arrillaga Gymnasium and Weight Room, the Arrillaga Outdoor Education and Recreation Center and the Arrillaga Plaza.
These are not, you'll notice, the most highbrow buildings at Stanford. A lot of vast fortunes have been made by Stanford grads in all sorts of esoteric ways, but Arrillaga's billions have come in just about the lowest tech field: real estate development. This is not uncommon that the biggest donations often come from the alumni in the more regular guy fields.
... In 2006, Arrillaga made a $100 million donation to the school, which at the time was the single largest individual donation ever made to Stanford. In Nov. 2011, Dorothy and Robert King (who coincidentally also graduated from Stanford in 1960) topped that donation by writing the school a $150 million check.
Or, perhaps it's not a coincidence, at least not in Arrillaga's mind, that the two classmates have been competing to give the most humongous donation in Stanford history.
The Wall Street Journal reports Arrillaga’s most recent donation was slightly bigger than the Kings’ donation, edging them out to reclaim the top donor spot.
Can't stop competing, can he?
Athletics pays off for some colleges in donations. Laura Arrillaga-Andreesen writes:
Athletics creates strong family bonds. My father attended every basketball game, tennis match and softball or baseball game in which my brother, John Jr., and I played as kids. Today, he rarely misses a Stanford home basketball or football game ...
If you are wondering why Stanford is so good in football recently, it has a lot to do with its new facilities, which attract top athletes. Many of the buildings were paid for by Arrillaga:
As part of making his first nine-figure gift to Stanford, he led the construction of the university's state-of-the-art football stadium – completed under-budget and in just 42 weeks' time. He made high-level decisions on stadium design and landscaping while paying attention to detail, overseeing 24-hour construction crews, picking out every tree, selecting seat materials and tasting countless hot dogs before choosing which brand to serve.
Arrillaga is also a fraternity boy, Delta Tau Delta.
And he married a Stanford girl. His daughter Laura has four separate degrees from Stanford:
Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, BA '92, MBA '97, MA '98, MA '99, is a lecturer in philanthropy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, a lecturer in public policy at Stanford, and founder and chairman of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.
This legacy thing has worked out well for Stanford:
In fact, my father's philanthropy was a primary inspiration behind the $27.5 million my husband, Marc Andreessen, and I gave to Stanford Hospital in 2006 to fund a new Emergency Department.
In general, it appears that the biggest donors to colleges are conservatives.