Everybody Wins With Competitive Philanthropy

March is a special time of year. Some of the nation’s best collegiate athletes compete head-to-head in an amazingly competitive showcase known as March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It has been an exciting, bracket-busting tournament so far that has me thinking about competitiveness in my own life.

I’ve always loved a good competition, in sports, business and philanthropy.

Reflecting back on my life – all 89 years of it – I’m more convinced than ever that I was put on this Earth to make money and be generous with it. Not until my 70s did I achieve billionaire status. And that’s when I stepped up my already considerable charitable giving. For some, charitable giving is a key component of preserving their legacy. They seed a foundation and, by distributing the required 5 percent annually, ensure their legacy for decades.

That’s not the path I chose. I established the T. Boone Pickens Foundation more than a decade ago, seeding it with more than $100 million over two consecutive years. The directive I gave my team: find great projects and exhaust the funding within a year of it being given. Further, like March Madness, use the philanthropy to inject a competitive spirit among the recipients.

A good case in point is my personal and foundation giving with respect to Oklahoma State University, where I’ve given more than $500 million to academics and athletics. Much of that — $120 million – supports a matching program where others can match my drive to improve the academic standing of the school. My long-term goal is for OSU to be able to compete with any other university in academics and athletics.

We’ve strived to inject that same competitive spirit in another core giving area for me, and that’s health and medical research. We gave $50 million each to two University of Texas flagship medical institutions, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Southwestern Medical Center. But we included a provision that required them to compete for other donations by stipulating that seed funding had to be matched up to $500 million within two decades. With pride I can say both institutions have met that requirement.

Sports and competition happens to be an effective fire starter. Even a sometimes bitter rivalry brings together thousands to cheer on something greater than its two parts. In this year’s March Madness, UMBC became the talk of the tournament because they competed when least expected. Now, they’ll use that momentum to improve and return next year, and by making history, they have inspired other teams to work harder.

No matter where you give or whom you give to, giving back has the same multiplying effect. No matter the cause, a little competitive giving inspires others to follow suit, and suddenly, you’ve made a real difference to a lot of people.

Today, there are others who inspire with a sense of competitive giving. Look at J.J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans, and what he was able to achieve for Houston in the wake of their disaster late last summer. In response to the hurricane, Watt set up a page online to accept donations, with an initial goal of raising $200,000 for folks in Houston most affected by Hurricane Harvey. In less than two hours, they had met the goal.

Rather than call it, Watt decided to raise the dollar amount and try to meet the new goal.

Two days later, he had raised a million. Then, two weeks after that first goal, and after raising the goal more than a few times, the fund had surpassed $30 million. Soon after, Watt and his crew were loading up ten semi-trucks and bringing all those goods to distribution centers throughout the state.

This is just one example of how giving combined with a little competitive spirit can lead to even more giving, which in turn leads to real benefits and marked change.

By September of 2012, I had given $525 million to OSU. I like making money, but being one of the most generous university benefactors ever has been one of the great pleasures of my life. My education at OSU took me from Holdenville to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. I’m proud to give back, and thrilled to see that it has encouraged others to do the same.

As we watch these athletes compete, as underdogs outperform, as we watch them push themselves to the limit for the names on the front of their jerseys, remember that competition is the driving force behind it all.

When you add a competitive spirit to philanthropy, everybody wins.