Billionaire Gave Grads $1,000 with Instructions to Give Half Away Themselves: Then What Happened?

“It feels like we are the ones getting the gift," the donor, Robert Hale Jr., tells PEOPLE

<p>Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty; John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty</p> Robert Hale Jr. (right)

Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty; John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty

Robert Hale Jr. (right)

Telecom billionaire CEO Robert Hale Jr. just made headlines for giving away $1,000 to every graduating student at the commencement for the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth — and telling them that the generous gift came with just one catch: They must give away half of the money, too.

Although it's too early to tell what will come from his donation, Hale tells PEOPLE he's already received notice of at least one very grateful organization that received a $500 donation.

This isn’t Hale's first such grad gift — he's been doing this for four years, first at Quincy College, then Roxbury Community College and now, for the past two years, at the University of Massachusetts.

He says he has yet to be disappointed by any of the results.

“We wanted to give [the graduates] a real gift to celebrate their perseverance, but also [encourage] giving to an organization or person who could use it to create that seed of philanthropy,” Hale says. “We have had the good fortune to give money, and it feels like we are the ones getting the gift."

Each UMass grad — where 40% of the 1,200 students in the class of 2024 are first-generation students and 31% are people of color — got two envelopes if they were at the ceremony, a "gift" and "give," with $500 inside.

One amount was to be spent on themselves, Hale announced.

The other was to be given away to a person or charity in need.

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Hale, 57, and the father of three grown children, tells PEOPLE he and his wife, Karen Hale, decided on the 50-50 plan when he gave the commencement address at Quincy four years ago at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I told Karen, 'These kids have been through horrible times.' They didn’t have classes. They have to sit six feet away, they have to wear masks,” Rob says. “It’s a very diverse community with a lot of kids for whom college is a financial hardship. They weathered the storm. Let’s find a cool way to celebrate with them.”

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The couple is well-known for their philanthropy. In April, Karen donated $10 million to Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Rob celebrated crossing the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon finish line with a donation of $26.2 million to various charities.

In the past, Rob says many students who received their $1,000 gift gave back to their colleges, especially programs that benefited them. A lot of donations also went to local animal shelters.

“One young lady said she was a single mom with five children,” he says. “She said, ‘I’m giving $100 to each of my children and that will be the best gift they have ever had.’ “

And he says overall, he feels people are just giving more.

<p>Michael Blanchard</p> From left: Rob and Karen Hale

Michael Blanchard

From left: Rob and Karen Hale

Related: 11 Sets of Twins to Graduate from Same Pennsylvania High School Together

“I think the American people are the most generous in the world,” he says.

That giving spirit harkens back to when he was growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts, where communities took care of each other and looking out for your neighbors was just part of the way of life, he says.

On Monday morning, he was sent a letter from the West Bridgewater Community Christmas Sharing Program, an organization that for the past 39 years has provided gifts for families in need through giving trees and donations.

Linda Santry, a program organizer, wrote with good news about one of the University of Massachusetts students to whom Hale had just given $1,000.

"One of our local graduates, who may not want to be named, but whose initials are MM, shocked me by giving her $500 to our Community Christmas Sharing program!!" Santry wrote. "She has been a helper for many years, delivering gifts to families or senior citizens, and we are so grateful for all her help and for this donation for the coming Christmas season."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Rob Hale marvels, "How cool is that? And hopefully, giving becomes a part of her life.”

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Hale also hopes the students walk away from his speech, which included telling them how he lost a billion dollars on a company, realizing that they shouldn’t be afraid to try and fail.

Because perseverance pays off.

Although 1,200 students were in the class of 2024, not all of them received the cash. Only those who attended the ceremony got Hale's gift, even though some graduates have offered good reasons why they weren’t there in order to collect.

That's another lesson, Hale says with a laugh: Sometimes in life, "you’ve got to show up."

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