EDITORIAL: Simon gifts to make big mark on region

December 28, 2013

Billionaire Mel Simon embraced philanthropy full bore in the final years before his September 2009 death at age 82.

It turns out he was just getting warmed up, as the recent avalanche of big gifts from his fortune announced by his children demonstrates.

They range from the $40 million that Cindy Simon Skjodt gave to fund renovations to Assembly Hall in Bloomington to the $100 million Debbie Simon gave to the Pennsylvania prep school she attended. Cindy also gave $2 million to the Herron School of Art & Design’s art-therapy program and $1.5 million to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

The Simons longstanding record of giving suggests that many of the gifts will continue to be directed to central Indiana—a local-first philosophy shared by central Indiana’s other great philanthropic families, the Lillys and the Glicks.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of generous benefactors to the quality of life of this region. Without the Glicks, for instance, there would be no Cultural Trail, among many other cultural and educational amenities.

Without the Lillys, there would be no Lilly Endowment. The Indianapolis-based foundation has assets topping $7 billion and just in 2012 awarded $230 million, most of it going to charities in Indiana—from the Indianapolis Zoo to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

And over the years, the endowment has unleashed huge sums at pivotal moments in the city’s history. For instance, in 1981 it chipped in $25 million toward construction of the Hoosier Dome (even though at the time the city had no NFL team). In the early 1990s, it gave $12 million to build the Artsgarden, and this year it committed $10 million to help launch the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute, a key economic-development initiative.

Many of those projects would be difficult or impossible to justify purely with government money or other traditional funding sources. Such also is the case with Simon Skjodt’s support of Assembly Hall. While the storied venue is treasured by many, the university would have been on dubious footing earmarking millions for renovations when its core educational functions are under financial strain.

The Simon giving spree is an outgrowth of the December 2012 settlement that ended a three-year legal battle over Mel Simon’s $3 billion estate. Following months of accounting work, the fortune is on track for distribution in early 2014.

Terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed, but the recent giving suggests the children, who said they believed their father wanted one-third of his fortune to go to charity, may have prevailed on that point.

Other high-profile gifts might be in the offing. In a statement to IBJ this summer, attorneys involved in the estate battle said hundreds of millions of dollars in additional contributions will be distributed to charities over the next decade.

While some of the gifts will be headline-grabbing, expect others to flow to lower-profile charities that help lift up those in need. As Simon Skjodt told IBJ this fall, “My father always taught us—and I hope I teach this—that we are really lucky people—that luck is nine-tenths of it. We are so fortunate in our lives that we need to help people who aren’t as fortunate.”•


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