Ira Fulton of Fulton Homes
Ira Fulton of Fulton Homes

Ira Fulton does not believe in handouts. That might sound like an incongruous statement from the 79-year-old patriarch of Arizona’s Fulton Homes, who has donated more than $300 million to universities and other organizations, and whom BusinessWeek has consistently ranked among America’s 50 most generous philanthropists. Until the recent housing slump, Fulton had been earmarking three-fifths of his home building company’s annual profit for philanthropy, with a particular interest in giving to companies and groups that focus on education and protecting children.

But Fulton isn’t interested in just writing checks. He takes a personal interest in making sure that his donations are being used the way he intended them to. For at least the past decade, he has averaged 30 hours per week working with and advising the universities he supports financially.

He insinuates himself into their programs, he explains, “not because I need it, but because the people I’m giving to need it. I don’t believe in free lunches. But you teach people how to buy their own lunches, how to provide for themselves. You do that, and you build character, self-esteem, and pride.”

Fulton isn’t trying to micromanage how his money gets spent. “He works in a very low-key way,” explains Dr. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Ariz., to which Fulton (an alumnus) has pledged $168 million, making him the university’s largest donor. Crow says Fulton’s primary interest is “upholding the importance of education. He refers to students as ‘children,’ in a good way, and his main concern is that all have equal access to education.” Fulton and his wife, Mary Lou, regularly meet with ASU’s students and participate in university events.

The money Fulton has pledged to ASU includes a $25 million discretionary investment fund for the Office of the President “to leverage as we see fit,” says Crow. The university has used $5 million of that grant to match an investment by the Kauffman Foundation, and then put up another $10 million to develop an entrepreneurial program at all 15 of its colleges, which is now permanently funded.

Fulton regularly visits The Point, a restaurant at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, to chat with staff and patients. Five years ago, John Huntsman, executive chairman for Huntsman Corp., which helps finance the Institute, approached Fulton about making a $10 million donation. “He was exceedingly gracious and immediately accepted the invitation to help us,” recalls Huntsman. “In fact, he said ‘Phew! I’m relieved you didn’t ask for a lot of money.’ ” This response didn’t surprise Huntsman once he learned that Fulton’s motivation to help others “stems from the example set by his sweet mother,” who for years operated a small restaurant called Mom’s Café, “and never turned away a hungry patron, regardless of ability to pay. She always told Ira to prioritize relationships and [to put] kindness before money.” In honor of Fulton’s mother, the University of Utah’s Marriott Library has a cafeteria called Mom’s Café.

Huntsman observes that Fulton sees his own philanthropy “as a catalyst to get others to join in and give back.” And his public service includes indefatigable fundraising. Cecil Samuelson, president of Brigham Young University (BYU), to which Fulton has committed $50 million, admiringly calls Fulton “a professional arm twister.” And once he identifies potential donors, Fulton is relentless in his pursuit. “He has even arranged for transportation and private tours for some of these prospects to help focus their attention on our cause,” says Huntsman. “He’s a great motivator.”

The home builder has also conducted campaigns to raise cash for various universities and Tempe High School, his alma mater, through “Fulton Challenges,” where he matches individual donations. One such challenge drew 5,000 donors. Fulton has been a big contributor and fundraiser as well for the Church of Latter Day Saints, of which he’s a member. “I feel like in some ways I’m on a mission,” he once said about his fundraising activities on behalf of BYU’s President’s Leadership Council. “I’m after the people who have significant assets and who don’t know what to do with them, who are hoarding them, thinking they can take them with them or give them to the kids to fiddle with. I’m trying to get that back to the Church.”

Fulton’s generosity often aims to achieve greater equality within institutions and the greater society. At BYU, for example, Fulton’s financial support allowed the university to spend $5 million to install a supercomputer—nicknamed Mary Lou—that undergraduates have access to. The Fulton Family Foundation has sponsored the education of hundreds of Native Americans, sending them to college and building homes on their land.

Beyond financial support, Fulton has played a vanguard role in a Phoenix-area water safety program whose goal has been to prevent children from drowning. And when Hurricane Katrina ripped through Louisiana, two of Fulton Homes’ top executives—president Doug Fulton (Ira’s son) and vice president Jeff Nadreau, both accomplished helicopter pilots—deployed with 100 members of Tempe’s Sheriff’s Department to assist in the state’s relief and recovery effort.

Crow suggests that Fulton’s investment in education and safety can be seen as an extension of his company’s home building activities. “His concern is for the quality of the community.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ, Salt Lake City, UT.