Largest Single Gift in UM History Supports Conservation and Global Leadership

In September, the University of Montana received its largest gift ever – a $24 million pledge from Bill and Carolyn Franke and their family. The donation will support sustainability research, especially related to water conservation, and global learning opportunities for students.

To thank the family, the University renamed two units in their honor: the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and the Franke Global Leadership Initiative.

“We are both humbled and affirmed by the Frankes’ thoughtful investment in UM,” said President Royce Engstrom. “The ongoing work of the college and the Franke GLI will have a profound impact on our future.”

Bill and Carolyn FrankeThough no one in the Franke family attended UM, the family has a deep appreciation for Montana. They have spent almost a decade developing a relationship with the University. The family believes strongly in the power of education, the importance of conservation and instilling a global perspective in today’s students.

Bill Franke is the managing partner and co-founder of Indigo Partners, a private equity firm focused on worldwide investments in air transportation, and former CEO of several public companies, including America West Airlines. During his early career in the timber industry, Bill drove the Hi-Line and fell in love with the Big Sky state. He and Carolyn divide time between Texas and Arizona, but have owned a home in the Bigfork area since the 1990s, maintaining their connection to the beautiful forests, rivers and lakes of western Montana.

For the past eight summers, a UM faculty member or alum has been invited to speak to a group of the Frankes’ business partners during their annual Indigo Partners company retreat in Montana.

“As we became familiar with the educational opportunities, research and special programs at the University of Montana, it was clear to us the University is a hidden gem,” said Bill Franke. “It is our expectation that the College of Forestry and Conservation’s work will help keep Montana the beautiful place that it is. And, we are believers that the Global Leadership Initiative will train students to look beyond their own experience and home geography to recognize that we live in a global economy.”

The decision to invest in UM was a family endeavor involving Bill and Carolyn’s five children: Dave, who oversees the family office, Franke and Company; Brian, a principal at Indigo Partners; Paige and Catherine, who are both educators; and Rebecca.

“Our family has been very fortunate in life,” said Dave, noting that his father’s education was a catalyst for the family’s achievements. “To create that same opportunity for a student – to fuel a desire to create their own success – that’s our ambition.”

The Frankes’ gift is focused on students and programs that emphasize environmental research and hands-on learning experiences. Eighteen million of the gift will support the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, providing competitive fellowship awards to faculty and graduate students, funding for undergraduates to learn about conservation through study abroad and service learning projects, and scholarships for both graduate and undergraduate students. It will also fund two faculty positions and support students doing internships related to their majors.

The other $6 million will fund scholarships for Franke Global Leadership Initiative students pursuing educational experiences outside of the classroom including internships, service learning, study abroad, research and field experiences. Additionally, it will support critical staffing and operations to continue building the program.

“We have been very impressed by the UM students we have met,” said Carolyn. “I am confident that there are students and faculty at this University who will help improve lives.” 

The family has a strong history of philanthropy and has been long-time supporters of the Sojourner Center, a shelter for abused women and children in Phoenix; the United Way; education initiatives in India; and many other charities. The Frankes have also made donations to the law and business programs at Stanford, where Bill received his bachelor’s and law degrees, and to Northern Arizona University to establish the W.A. Franke College of Business.

Their gift to UM takes the form of an endowment, which will ensure a continued impact on students and programs in perpetuity.

Read about the impact of the Franke gift on W.A. Franke CFC faculty and Franke GLI students

Pictured above: Bill and Carolyn Franke. Photo by Dan Delaney.