In Philanthropy: The Mellon Foundation’s $500M Pledge to Reimagine Monuments and More

A $50 million donation from FedEx founder Frederick Smith will renovate the football stadium at the University of Memphis.

From an astronomical commitment from the Mellon Foundation toward its monuments initiative to the more than $3 million awarded by a nonprofit founded by Pharrell Williams, these are some of the most notable developments in the world of philanthropy.

The Mellon Foundation doubles down on its Monuments Project

Large red totem pole installed by waterfront
Yanyeidí Pole, created by carver Joseph Young (Haida tribe) on Kootéeya Deiyí, the Totem Pole Trail in Juneau, Alaska. Acacia Johnson

A new pledge from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation brings the nonprofit’s total commitments to its Monuments Project to a staggering $500 million. The initiative, introduced by the New York-based foundation in 2020, funds public projects and monuments that accurately represent U.S. history.

Doubling down on the $250 million pledge it made three years ago, the Mellon Foundation’s half-a-billion-dollar commitment is the largest in its 54-year history. “The project of transforming our commemorative landscape is the work of more than one generation,” said Elizabeth Alexander, the foundation’s president, in a statement.

Projects funded by the initiative include both physical monuments and the protection of archival materials and historical sites. The preservation and expansion of artist Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles has been supported by the Monuments Project, as has the Newark Art Council’s construction of a new monument to support Harriet Tubman’s (and the city’s) role in the Underground Railroad. Other investments from the initiative over the past few years have included the commissioning of totem poles in Juneau, Alaska, created by Native artists, and the establishment of an oral history by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Since the inception of the Monuments Project, more than $170 million in funding has been funneled to 80 projects. The Mellon Foundation additionally supported the National Monument Audit, a 2021 study that found commemorative sites across the U.S. disproportionately honor white and male figures.

Frederick Smith commits $50 million to the University of Memphis

Man in suit sits in front of microphone
FedEx founder Frederick Smith in 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Frederick Smith, the founder and executive chairman of FedEx, is giving the University of Memphis the largest donation in the school’s history. The $50 million gift from Smith and his family will aid renovations at the university’s Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, used by Memphis Tiger Football.

The university will match Smith’s donation with a $50 million capital campaign. Meanwhile, the stadium renovations are expected to receive an additional $120 million in State grant funding according to a proposed resolution from a Memphis City Councilman, which will be effective by Dec. 30 pending council approval.

“Tourism is our second-largest industry after logistics, and this will help to drive additional activity and development here in our home city,” said the Smith family in a statement. Smith, who has an estimated net worth of $5.8 billion, previously gave $100 million to his alma mater Yale through a FedEx donation in 2021. A former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, he also donated $65 million last year to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

Pharrell Williams’ nonprofit awards $3.2 million to Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs

Man in green baseball hat and blue shirt
Pharrell Williams at Paris Fashion Week in October. Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Black Ambition, a nonprofit focused on financially supporting startups run by Black and Hispanic leaders, awarded $3.2 million to 36 entrepreneurs during its third annual Demo Day. The organization was founded in 2020 by musician and producer Pharrell Williams, who in February also became the new men’s creative director for Louis Vuitton.

Antoinette Banks, the founder of Expert IEP, an app optimizing education plans for children with disabilities, received the highest award of $1 million. “For so long Black and Brown kids with learning differences have been underestimated and forgotten,” said Banks in a statement. “Earning this $1M prize puts our kids back in the forefront, it gets people thinking deeply about solving the problems in special education.”

The other award winners include the likes of ECOMPSACES, which provides e-commerce solutions, and Monocle, an e-reader emphasizing community-focused reading experiences, which received $250,000 and $200,000 respectively.  Since its launch, Black Ambition has funded more than 101 award winners with approximately $10 million while also providing mentorship to an additional 750 entrepreneurs.

Joseph Rice gives $30 million to the University of South Carolina’s School of Law

Man reclines in beige chair in office
Joseph Rice in his office in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Courtesy University of South Carolina

The law school at the University of South Carolina (USC) has received $30 million from prominent trial lawyer Joseph Rice. In recognition of the gift, the school will be renamed the Joseph F. Rice School of Law.

The donation will establish an endowed student scholarship fund providing both full and partial scholarships, while also establishing at least four endowed professorships and stipends for students who complete the children’s law concentration. “I want to also challenge my legal colleagues across the country, from any law school, to repay their good fortune with dollars, time, talent or creativity to bring about more positive change,” said Rice, a graduate of USC, in a statement.

Rice, a co-founder of the Motley Rice law firm, played a lead role in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s and resolved settlements following the 2010 BP oil spill. This isn’t the first time he’s given back to his alma mater—in 2021, he donated $1 million to the USC’s Children’s Law Center. In 2013, Motley Rice created both a scholarship and training program fund at the university’s law school, which has since subsidized a capstone course on litigation skills and 26 scholarships.

In Philanthropy: The Mellon Foundation’s $500M Pledge to Reimagine Monuments and More