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Billionaire gave cash to all UMass Dartmouth graduates, with a catch: NPR

Robert Hale hands an envelope filled with cash to a UMass Dartmouth graduate student at graduation last week.  Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 on stage, half to keep and half to donate.

Robert Hale hands an envelope filled with cash to a UMass Dartmouth graduate student at graduation last week. Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 on stage, half to keep and half to donate.

Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


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Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Robert Hale hands an envelope filled with cash to a UMass Dartmouth graduate student at graduation last week.  Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 on stage, half to keep and half to donate.

Robert Hale hands an envelope filled with cash to a UMass Dartmouth graduate student at graduation last week. Each of the 1,200 graduates received $1,000 on stage, half to keep and half to donate.

Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

UMass Dartmouth graduating students left their graduation ceremony with more than just their diplomas, after one of the speakers surprised them with envelopes filled with hundreds of dollars in cash.

The warning? It’s not all yours to keep.

“The greatest joys we have experienced in life come from giving,” Robert Hale Jr. said on stage Thursday, referring to himself and his wife Karen. “We want to share that gift of giving with you today.”

Hale, the billionaire co-founder and chairman of Massachusetts-based Granite Telecommunications and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, was on stage during Thursday’s rainy ceremony to accept the Chancellor’s Medal for his philanthropic work.

And, unbeknownst to the students, he was there to do some of that, too.

In brief remarks, he praised the students for their hard work despite the challenges of the pandemic and, drawing on his own experiences early in his career, urged them not to let failure define them.

Later, just as the chancellor was about to begin awarding degrees, Hale returned to the podium and gently pushed him aside, saying that his speech was not over yet. He and Karen, he said, wanted to celebrate the graduates by giving them $1,000 each.

The students emerged from under their umbrellas, bursting into thunderous cheers and applause. This lasted almost a minute before Hale could intervene again.

“Listen, there is a stipulation: wait!” he said. “The first $500 is our gift to you. The second $500 is for you to give to another person or another organization that could use it more than you.”

As he spoke, security officers brought two black duffel bags onto the stage. They were filled with 3,000 envelopes, which he said were decorated by students from two local elementary schools and labeled “gift” or “give.”

Within minutes, it was time for the students to walk across the stage. One at a time, dressed in rain ponchos and big smiles, they accepted their diplomas and a couple of envelopes.

Hale told NPR in a phone interview Wednesday that it was exhilarating to be part of such a happy surprise and see the “pure joy” on the students’ faces.

“These are kids who are working hard to be there,” he said. “We should all be proud of them. And they could certainly use the gift, which is fantastic.”

Of the 1,200 students in the Class of 2024, 40% are first-generation and 31% are students of color, according to UMass Dartmouth.

Forbes estimates Hale’s net worth at $5.4 billion, ranking him 203rd on its list of the 400 richest Americans. The 57-year-old’s wealth has increased by $2.2 billion since he first made the list in 2022. And he has given much of it (more than $270 million) to charitable causes, including cancer research and educational institutions.

In fact, this is not the first time it has rewarded graduates with cash for themselves and the causes of their choice. Over the past three years, he pulled off the same upset at Quincy College, Roxbury Community College and UMass Boston.

Hale said he and his wife came up with the idea when he was invited to give a commencement speech in the middle of the pandemic, as a way to celebrate and hopefully inspire students who had been through so much.

“Some of the happiest moments of our lives have been when we have had the opportunity to share,” he explained. “And so we thought, if there’s a way that we can create that seed within another generation where they can experience the joy of giving, then maybe that will become something that they strive to do and get used to doing and it will make us all a little better on the road.”

Students are donating the money to all kinds of causes.

UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, as shown at the table behind.

UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, as shown at the table behind.

Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


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Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, as shown at the table behind.

UMass Dartmouth students walked across the stage to accept their diplomas and cash, as shown at the table behind.

Karl Christoff Dominey/University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

While some university staff were aware of the plan in the works, UMass Dartmouth spokesperson Ryan Merrill says it came as a surprise to students and their guests.

And some students have already told her where they will donate their money: a women’s shelter, a children’s theater organization and a fundraiser for a family member’s cancer treatment.

For his part, Hale says he’s heard anecdotal “tiriosities” about where students have donated their money in the past.

He recalls that a previous graduate, a single mother, told him personally that she planned to donate $100 to each of her five children.

“In the 20 minutes between the time we made that announcement and her coming on stage, she made that decision and then shared it with me on stage, which is great,” he said.

She also learned on social media that one of this year’s graduates donated her money to a local charity that provides Christmas gifts to children. She herself had been a beneficiary years ago, she said.

“And so, the day after he received $500, he brought it to her and gave it to her,” he said. “And the (principal) said, ‘We raised good kids, didn’t we?’ ”

Hale’s advice to new graduates (and anyone considering philanthropy) is to choose a cause that is important to them and, ideally, one they can continue to support long-term through annual or frequent giving.

“To me, that’s the key ingredient, how important it is to you,” he said, pointing to his own focus on children and education. “Everyone has somewhat limited resources. So if you share it, it better be something that strikes a chord with you.”

(Here are some more tips from experts on how to donate wisely and sustainably.)

Hale played coy when asked about his future plans, but said donating to college graduates is “a wonderful thing” and that it seems “pretty likely” the couple will continue doing so.

Especially after this year, he added, they have no shortage of invitations.