Thursday, June 13, 2013

When Is It Fair to Criticize a Philanthropist’s Choices?

For the most part, I think the answer to the question is ‘never’. If donors want to give money to causes or institutions they favor, it’s none of my business. The exception might be donations to clearly evil causes – I would look askance at someone contributing to the Ku Klux Klan, for instance. But short of that, do as you please.

Having said that, I will immediately contradict myself, and raise a question about a recent donation I heard of, by a guy named Fred Uytengsu, who gave eight million dollars to the University of Southern California to build a new swimming facility at their campus  
In front of a crowd spilling over with Olympic swimmers, divers and water polo players and teeming with NCAA champions and All-Americans, USC Athletics celebrated its ceremonious groundbreaking Friday (Nov. 2) of the $16 million Uytengsu Aquatics Center, made possible by the record $8 million lead gift by former walk-on swimmer and 1983 swim captain Fred Uytengsu. 
Uytengsu, whose gift is the largest ever to Athletics from a former student-athlete, joined his former swim coach and USC legend Peter Daland as well as USC President C. L. Max Nikias, Trojan swim great John Naber, Athletic Director Pat Haden and current women's water polo player Madeline Rosenthal as speakers at the hour-long event. Uytengsu was accompanied at the event by many in his family, including his wife Kerri (who he met as an undergrad at USC) and two of their children, Ashton (a 2009 USC graduate) and Kayla.
Why does this annoy me? After all, the guy, his wife, and his kids attended USC and he was captain of the swim team in the eighties. One might argue that donations to schools are better focused on the supposed purpose of the school (by which I mean education) rather than sports facilities, but still, I can understand his motivations.

But here’s what bothers me about it: Fred Uytengsu is a Filipino. His father founded Alaska Milk Corporation, and Fred currently heads the company, which is the country’s largest dairy products company; until last year, the Uytengsu family continued to own most of the company. They sold their share for $300 million.

I think that if a person is immensely wealthy in a desperately poor country, that he might feel that his contributions should best be focused on the people of his country. It’s not as though there are a shortage of worthy causes that Fred probably sees evidence of every day – schools, daycare centers, homeless and hungry children.

And it’s not as though Southern Cal is itself a struggling institution. With an endowment of $3.5 billion, they should have no trouble building a new swimming center without his help.

I’m going to make a statement I can’t prove, but that I think is probably pretty safe: USC’s endowment is greater than the endowments of every college and university in the Philippines combined. 

The three most prestigious private universities here (and therefore the ones most likely to garner donations and endowments) are Ateneo de Manila, Santo Tomas, and de la Salle. I can’t find anything about endowments for the first two, but DLSU, according to Wikipedia, has a total endowment of $6.5 million (less than 1/500th that of USC).

So again I will admit that it’s Fred’s money to do with as he pleases, but perhaps he might reflect on that old saying my mother used so often: charity begins at home.


  1. Is he a Filipino or an American Filipino?

  2. Filipino -- lives in Manila, I think (that's where the family business is based)..