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$126 million to date has been gifted to health system by Dwight and Martha Schar
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$126 million to date has been gifted to health system by Dwight and Martha Schar

In philanthropy as in business, Dwight Schar sees the wisdom in doubling down when the stakes — and the impact — of an investment are high.

Three decades after their initial donation to the organization, Schar and his wife, Martha, made a $75 million matching gift to Falls Church-based Inova Health System. It was the largest donation the 68-year-old nonprofit health system had ever received, and the largest donation the Schars had ever made.

The Schars have donated more than $126 million to Inova to date, including $50 million in 2015 to establish the Inova Schar Cancer Institute, the hospital system’s Fairfax County hub for cancer treatment and clinical trials, which opened in 2019.

“Health care is No. 1 in my books; there’s nothing more important you can offer the community,” Schar says. “The metropolitan Washington area has been very good to me and my business, so this is where I feel I can do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

The Northern Virginia philanthropist founded Reston-based Fortune 500 company NVR, one of the nation’s largest mortgage bankers and homebuilders, which operates under the Ryan Homes, NVHomes and Heartland Homes brands.

Schar, retired as NVR’s chair in 2022, after having previously served also as CEO. Since its founding in 1980, NVR has grown to employ more than 6,000 people, and for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2023, it reported $9.79 billion in revenue. As of 2024, it has built homes in 36 metropolitan areas across 16 states, mainly on the East Coast.

“There are two issues in health care that affect every family: cancer, and heart and vascular health,” says Schar, whose mother died of cancer at age 58. “My mother raised six children by herself, and health care was not very accessible to us at that point in time.” Martha Schar herself recently had a heart valve replacement surgery, but for her husband, it’s just coincidence and not a surprising one, given that heart disease affects more Americans than any other condition.

“Despite enormous progress in diagnostic techniques and innovative drug, device and procedure treatment options, heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S.,” says Dr. Christopher O’Connor, president of Inova Schar Heart and Vascular. “Because of disparities in care related to the disparities in income and other social drivers of health in Northern Virginia, there is a significant variation in cardiovascular mortality rates that we hope to address with this gift.”

He adds, “It is critical that we transform cardiovascular care to address disparities and strengthen our ability to prevent and combat this deadly disease.”

The Schars’ record 2023 donation helps check a lot of boxes on Inova’s long wish list, including financial support for research, outreach, prevention and early diagnosis of cardiovascular ailments, hiring more health care professionals, and expanding specialty services.

“This gift is not about doing big shiny things, but to help us focus on providing the very best patient-centered care and attracting the very best talent to provide that care,” says Sage Bolte, chief philanthropy officer and president of the Inova Health Foundation, the organization’s fundraising arm.

Initially called the Fairfax Hospital Association, Inova was founded in the 1950s to meet a pressing need for local hospital services for Fairfax County residents. Today, it provides more than 4 million patient visits a year and employs more than 24,000 people across five hospitals and dozens of other facilities, including 37 primary care clinics and Northern Virginia’s only state-designated and nationally verified Level 1 trauma center.

“Dwight and Martha’s commitment to ensuring that all individuals in the Northern Virginia region have access to world-class health care shows up in everything they do, even in their partnerships with some of the other organizations around. Their generosity is accelerating our ability to attract world-class physicians, nurses and researchers,” Bolte says.

The Schars’ latest donation will deepen resources for women’s cardiovascular health, Bolte adds. “Women have different symptoms. They show up differently with heart disease or heart failure, and we’ve now hired some experts to create a comprehensive women’s cardiac program that is going to be transformational for the way in which we’re able to care for women, especially premenopausal, menopausal and pregnant women.” Early detection and prevention of heart and vascular disease will also be a top priority, as well as reaching higher-risk communities lacking access to health care, according to Bolte.

Programmatic priorities, O’Connor says, also include advanced heart failure and lung disease care, minimally invasive cardiac surgery and interventions to reduce recovery time and improve quality of life, as well as development of vascular medicine and surgery innovations to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, critical blockages of arteries in the lower limbs, and limb amputations. “These novel diagnostic and treatment techniques are having an immediate impact and will continue to be built out in the coming years,” says the physician.

The gift from the Schars has also enabled O’Connor’s team to pursue innovative platforms to predict and prevent disease progression through artificial intelligence and data analytics. “We are continuing to grow our use and understanding of telemedicine, remote monitoring, wearables and other technologies as they continue to evolve. These platforms are improving patient outcomes and resulting in better quality of life,” O’Connor says.

Finally, the donation will help Inova to make important capital investments in new labs, patient rooms and equipment, as the health system’s heart and vascular group expands its footprint at multiple locations, including Inova Alexandria Hospital’s new Landmark Mall location, Inova Fairfax Hospital and ambulatory care locations. “More surgical suites and rooms mean that more patients can be seen in a timely manner,” Bolte says.

The Schars’ recent donation had another important effect for Inova — a seismic increase in gifts large and small. “The Schars’ pledge came with a community challenge to match their gift to ‘anywhere your heart beats,’” explains Bolte. “The Schars said, ‘Our heart has beaten for cancer and for heart and vascular. Your heart might beat for behavioral health. Give where your heart beats and meet that $75 million challenge by next May.’ As of the end of April [2024], we are just $7 million away, nearly double what we would normally raise in a year.”

As with many business relationships, the Schars’ connection to Inova began with a personal one. Dwight Schar admired the community engagement of J. Knox Singleton, who was then president and CEO of Inova Health System and also was involved in organizations like United Way.

“At that point in my career, I was really broke, but I was drawn to help Inova,” says Schar. In 1990, NVR lost $261 million after interest rates skyrocketed and home sales dropped, and in 1992, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which it emerged from in 1993, the year the Schars made their first major donation to Inova.

In 2015, Schar was there to back Singleton — and Inova — at a critical moment. When rumors began to circulate that oil giant ExxonMobil was contemplating a move from its 117-acre Merrifield campus, Singleton took the opportunity to shop around the concept for a new multidisciplinary cancer and research center, reaching out to Schar and his friend and fellow real estate mogul Milt Peterson for help.

Schar and Peterson’s combined real estate acumen, political connections and financial backing proved critical in Inova’s $182.5 million purchase of the land from ExxonMobil in 2020, after leasing it in 2015.

Sage Bolte was executive director of Inova’s Life with Cancer and Patient Experience when the Schars made their $50 million gift in 2015. “It was exhilarating that someone saw the value in what we were doing and helped us make it that much better. It really energized staff and put a spotlight on how Inova was doing something different related to cancer care,” says Bolte.

That gift to Inova’s cancer program has paid substantial dividends, she adds. “It helped us build a comprehensive cancer program, where patients are seen by an entire multidisciplinary team, including psychosocial care, and get all their treatment in the same building. That is a very rare experience in community-based cancer care, which is usually very fragmented.”

The endowment also enabled Inova to create a fellowship program, grow its rosters of residents and oncology-certified nurses, and create an arts and healing program within the cancer program, among other outcomes. Another initiative supported by the Schars’ recent gift was standing up a molecular tumor board, a team of multi-disciplinary experts who make individualized cancer treatment recommendations for patients not responding to typical treatment regimens.

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