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Billionaire Bill Macaulay is giving back in a way that should make the wealthy take notice


Do you ever wonder how effective philanthropy by wealthy people really is? Do they sometimes throw their money around without much thought? I’m talking about mega-gifts to charities with fuzzy goals and poor track records or giving tens of millions of dollars to the richest universities on the planet.

Not Bill Macaulay. A soft-spoken billionaire who grew up in modest circumstances in the Bronx, Macaulay made a fortune as CEO of private equity firm First Reserve, which does buyouts in the energy sector. Macaulay, 70, has given back in a way that should make wealthy people take notice—finding a raison d’être that makes him extremely proud and arguably has maximum impact on society.

Macaulay, you see, graduated from City College of New York, Class of 1966, (and then went on to receive an MBA from Wharton.)

“I got to where I am today because I went to City College,” Macaulay tells me in a recent interview. “I wanted to give back. It’s that simple. If it weren’t for the City University, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to achieve what I achieved.”

And so ten years ago, Macaulay gave $30 million dollars to endow the William E. Macaulay Honors College at the university. The program attracts the best and brightest kids in New York City. “They have average SATs of 1400, so it’s like an Ivy League school,” he tells me. “Almost half the kids are immigrants or have parents who were immigrants, and almost half are the first in their families to go to college. We try to give them all the advantages. Not only do they get free tuition and computers, but also a lot of counseling, advising and internships—even money to go abroad. It’s a lot of effort.”

Macaulay, who acknowledges that you can only have so many houses and airplanes, says he has “no intention telling people how they should give money.” But he says giving to City University this way, “is much more impactful to more kids who need it a lot more than another … going to Harvard.”

Macaulay notes that over the past decade students have won 200 prestigious awards, including two Rhodes scholarships, more than 30 Fulbrights, 23 National Science awards and six Trumans. And then there are the stories of kids going to and succeeding at Harvard Medical School and Stanford Law School. “We hit way above a school our size,” he says. “It has been extremely successful, and I’m pretty pleased by that.”

Bill Macaulay has been able to fund and watch the American dream unfold before his eyes. What could possibly be more rewarding than that?

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.

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