Elizabeth Lavin

Charity

The City of Philanthropists

Dallas has long been a giving city, especially from its richest families. Lyda Hill gives more than most.

On October 22, 2010, Lyda Hill wrote a short letter, addressed to “whomever it may concern”: “I wish to make the world a better place by advancing solutions to medical and environmental issues through investments in and donations to science. … At my death my entire estate and my foundation will be distributed to charities I have designated.”

The letter was part of The Giving Pledge, the effort led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to encourage the wealthiest people to donate the bulk of their fortunes to philanthropic efforts in their lifetime. But Hill, who turns 72 this month, did not need any prompting to give back. She’s been doing so for as long as she can remember, donating time and energy before she had money of her own to give. “I didn’t know there was another way,” she says.

Hill is part of a long Dallas tradition of philanthropists in the city’s richest families, a tradition that includes her parents, Albert and Margaret Hunt Hill. But the granddaughter of oil magnate H.L. Hunt has set herself apart. She’s put money into nature conservancy projects, started a venture capital firm for biomedical research, and, lately, has been heavily involved with efforts to help wounded soldiers with brain trauma.

She gave $15 million to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (whose CEO, Nicole Small, she hired away last year to run her foundation). And in 2011, she gifted $20 million to her alma mater, the Hockaday School, half of which went to new classrooms and research space for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She doubled her initial pledge of $10 million after learning it would have been only the third-largest donation.

Last year alone, Hill gave $63 million to science-related causes. The biggest chunk—$50 million—went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Moon Shots Program, an ambitious, interdisciplinary attack on cancer rates. Hill’s was the largest donation until another foundation matched it.

But she hasn’t stepped up her philanthropy because she wrote that letter in 2010. It’s much simpler than that: the same year, Hill finally came into her full inheritance from her grandfather’s trust. “I just have so much more money to give now,” she says.

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