A Welcome Funding Source for College Athletics: Women

Lisa Palmer, 51, a former star softball pitcher at Virginia who is now president and chief financial officer of a real estate investment trust, endowed a softball scholarship there in 2014. Now she is the lead donor, with her mother, for a $10 million softball stadium scheduled to open at the university in March.

At Indiana University, women have given half of the philanthropic funding — at least $52 million of $105 million — for an ongoing capital campaign for athletics, including about $13 million of the $15 million donated to build a center focused on physical and mental wellness, nutrition and leadership and life skills.

The donations also include $40 million given in 2013 for the renovation of Indiana’s arena for men’s and women’s basketball by Cindy Simon Skjodt, whose father, Melvin Simon, was an owner of the Indiana Pacers and a leading mall developer.

“There has been a bit of a surge,” said Fred Glass, Indiana’s athletic director. By contrast, he said, the number of women who were lead donors for the university’s previous capital campaign for sports, from 2006 to 2010, “would be closer to zero.”

In a broad context, sports philanthropy reflects that women who have made their own money, inherited fortunes or outlived their spouses are controlling more wealth than ever in the United States and are directing it to their favorite causes, including higher education, said David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a digital media site.

“Philanthropy is very often a joint couple activity,” Mr. Callahan said. “But there are more women donors who are acting autonomously as philanthropists.”

In fiscal 2018, a record $46.7 billion was donated to American universities, earmarked for areas like scholarships, financial need, technology and medical science research, according to a survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Against that larger backdrop, Mr. Callahan said, “You can see how athletics would be a beneficiary.”