Dwight and Martha Schar’s transformative $50 million gift to Inova Health System
Gasps were heard around the room when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced at a press conference last month that Dwight and Martha Schar of McLean were gifting Inova Health System $50 million, the largest single gift ever bestowed to a health organization in the commonwealth. The gift will help Inova establish one of the nation’s preeminent cancer research centers.
The billionaire businessman and philanthropist, who founded NVR Inc., the third largest homebuilder in the U.S., is no stranger to charitable giving. In 2014, he and his wife gifted $12 million to Elon University, where their son attends college, along with $17 million to his alma mater Ashland University and $1 million each to George Mason University and Youth for Tomorrow, an organization founded by friend Joe Gibbs.
The Schars weren’t always in a position to give such generous gifts. He came from humble beginnings and was originally a teacher, which is where he developed his passion for education. “There is no greater responsibility than being a teacher,” Dwight tells us during an exclusive interview at “Windfall,” his McLean home.
“I got my college degree in education because all the people I knew who were what I considered successful were teachers,” he says. One of six children raised by a single mother in the rural northeast Ohio town of Creston, Dwight knew that his own education, coupled with a dogged approach to work, would be the key to upward mobility. He left home at 15 to work on his uncle’s farm throughout high school and, after graduating Ashland, took on a weekend job, selling houses to supplement his full-time work as a teacher.
“The first house I sold was to a banker who paid cash and he told my boss he was a fool not to hire me, so that’s how I got my start out in sales in Cincinnati,” Dwight says. Soon, he took on more management duties and was put in charge of running a large development. He left to join Ryan Homes “because they were much more successful and I wanted to find out how they did it” and after 11 years there, including four in Washington, Dwight created NVR and ended up acquiring Ryan Homes upon going public.
“When I moved to Washington, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” he says. “The quality of the people and the professionalism of our competitors was such that we were able to be very successful.”
“Very successful” is an understatement. “We called our property ‘Windfall’ because that’s what I feel we’ve had, unexpected good fortune,” Martha says. The couple’s success has extended to philanthropic, political and even professional sports arenas. Dwight is a part owner of the Washington Redskins and works closely with Dan Snyder. He also served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee for many years.
But it was meetings with his friend Dr. George Johnson of George Mason University, and a group of business people that got him thinking seriously about philanthropy. “We would meet once a month and talk about civic, political and charitable issues and I was always influenced by the level at which they participated and allowed me to participate.”
We asked how he makes his philanthropic decisions.
“I look at where there is a great need, who is doing the best job in addressing the need and then ask how my support can influence those making a difference to do even more,” he says.
“If you have been blessed with the resources to make a difference in the lives of others, don’t wait. However, be wise in your approach to philanthropy. Find an unmet need and then investigate how your donation will have the greatest impact.”
Take Inova, for example, of which he speaks passionately.
“I have been partial to teaching and education interests now and in the past with my contributions,” Dwight acknowledges. “However, my passion for teaching led me to Inova. Inova is teaching the world how to apply genomics to improve and personalize cancer care. I learned that the old, reactive approach to cancer care was not as effective as a personalized approach powered by genomics. A thorough scan of the healthcare landscape revealed that right in my own backyard, Inova was doing extraordinary research using genomics to develop treatments and therapies for cancer.”
“Imagine having one of the world’s leading cancer centers right here, a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital.”
The Dwight and Martha Schar Cancer Institute will be located on an expansive 117-acre property formerly owned by Exxon Mobil and across the street from Inova’s flagship Fairfax hospital.
Equipped with one of the world’s largest human genome sequenced databases and a formidable combination of researchers and physicians, Inova is already “transforming healthcare,” Dwight says. “Inova’s vision is to develop a model that is predictive, preventive and personalized … In my view, the pieces are in place to make a game-changing difference in the way cancer is treated. Our philanthropic investment will be the tipping point to push the application of cancer research and care that will improve and save countless lives.”
“Our gift will enhance the groundbreaking work already taking place at Inova and support more research and recruit the world’s best and brightest cancer specialists to Northern Virginia,” Martha says. “When you add the potential of genomics, healthcare makes tremendous sense for our philanthropic investment because we can make an immediate and significant difference on our health, our family’s health and the health of others.”
At 71, Dwight agrees that now is the time to focus on this area.
“As part of the immense baby boomer generation, we are advancing in age but living longer. With age comes the greater likelihood of cancer. Now is the time for Martha and me to make a difference in the lives of our generation and beyond.”
And medical research, he says, is an area in tremendous need of funding.
“With advances in technology, medicine and genomics, so many more options are available to people to help them live healthier and longer. However, not everyone has access to care. My investment in a not-for-profit organization such as Inova ensures that the leading-edge research and care being developed will reach more people – both the less fortunate and fortunate in our community and beyond.”
“You cannot find a harder worker or someone who cares more about this commonwealth than Dwight Schar,” Gov. McAuliffe said when making the historic announcement.
“The reality is you succeed because of your integrity,” Dwight tells us, “because of all the people you do business with. And we’ve had a number of bumps in the road that if we hadn’t dealt honestly and fairly with people, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
This article appeared in the June 2015 “Philanthropic 50” issue of Washington Life.