Donor of the Day: Giving for Learning—And for Rowing

By Melanie Grayce West (The Wall Street Journal) – Billionaire investor Bill Ackman and his wife, Karen, like to support entrepreneurial organizations at an early stage. They look for projects where their involvement will make a material difference.

For those reasons, Mr. Ackman, the chief executive of the New York-based hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, wasn’t planning to give a lot of money to his alma mater, Harvard University.

Karen and Bill Ackman

But he had a change of heart with his 25th college reunion.

On Monday, the university will announce gifts totaling $26 million from the Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation.

Mr. Ackman, 47 years old, earned his undergraduate degree in social studies from Harvard University in 1988 and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1992. Mrs. Ackman earned a master in landscape architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1993.

The couple met as graduate students—when they were introduced by fax—and married in 1994.

The majority of the gift, $17 million, will go toward the expansion of the university’s Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative. The group is designed to work across departments to study the various mechanisms—economic, behavioral and psychological, for example—that influence human behavior, a subject that interests Mr. Ackman.

David Laibson, a professor of economics and a classmate of Mr. Ackman, is leading the initiative.

The gift will establish a research venture fund and three named professorships. The first professorship will go to Matthew Rabin, a scholar in behavioral economics and behavioral finance who created a fairness model that is widely used in game theory. Mr. Rabin will leave the University of California, Berkeley, to join the Harvard faculty in July.

In an interview last week, Mr. Ackman said fairness is a guiding principle of his Pershing Square Foundation, established in 2006. The foundation supports social justice, antipoverty and education initiatives, among others, and has awarded some $235 million to date.

In 2012, the Ackmans joined the Giving Pledge, a public commitment started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in which billionaires agree to dedicate the majority of their wealth to charity.

“I decided a significant life is one in which I have the largest impact on the greatest number of people in a positive way,” said Mr. Ackman.

The remainder of the money will be split between Harvard Medical School and Harvard Athletics. The Pershing Square Foundation will fund a $4 million chair in Global Health for Dr. Paul Farmer, the Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine. Dr. Farmer is one of the founders of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit health-care organization.

The last $5 million will support the men’s crew team.

Mr. Ackman rowed during college, but not in the first boat. He was stroke on the third boat. Still, the experience taught him that he is able go beyond perceived limitations, persisting when “the pain is enormous and continuous.”

Mr. Ackman said that during his time on the team, rowers for the first and second boats would travel to Florida during spring break to train. Mr. Ackman’s gift, a 25-year commitment, will allow for an important expansion to the annual training trip: Third-boaters will now get to go, too.

Write to Melanie Grayce West at

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