News and analysis
April 03, 2017

Higher Education’s Megagift Boom Hits New High, Survey Shows

Big gifts to higher education last year topped $6 billion for the first time, continuing a postrecession surge in eight- and nine-figure donations to colleges and universities even as data suggest giving from their smaller contributors is declining.

Donors made 194 gifts of $10 million or more to higher education last year, also a new high, according a new survey by Marts & Lundy, a fundraising-consulting firm. A decade ago, just before the Great Recession, higher education received just 124 gifts of that size.

"Megagifts continue to drive ‘megacampaigns’ at colleges and universities," concluded the report.

The data on gifts from big donors come as higher-education officials worry over a decline in overall giving. The Council for Aid to Education recently reported that alumni contributions to colleges and universities fell almost 9 percent in fiscal year 2016, which ended in June. (The Marts & Lundy survey covers the 2016 calendar year.)

That decline has many causes, according to college fundraisers and experts. The stock market’s shaky start in 2016 may have played a role. Also, colleges nationwide are struggling to raise money from their youngest graduates.

Another possible contributor: Many institutions are directing resources to major-gift fundraising and away from annual-fund efforts, which can be more expensive per dollar raised. These colleges often make this shift hoping to raise more dollars while spending less, says Phil Hills, president of Marts & Lundy.

"Should institutions be investing for the long term in the entire spectrum of giving?" he says. "Yes, but that’s difficult to do that when you’re under pressure to raise a lot of money at the lowest possible cost."

Bright Forecast

Mr. Hills expects giving to higher education will be strong in the coming years. A forecast report by Marts & Lundy and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University calls for growth averaging 6 percent over each of the next two years.

Other data from the Marts & Lundy survey:

  • Institutions of higher education received $6.2 billion in gifts of $10 million or more in 2016. The total is 11 percent higher than the $5.6 billion figure recorded in 2015 and nearly 14 percent higher than the pre-Great Recession, inflation-adjusted total of $5.5 billion from 2007.
  • Last year saw 23 gifts of $50 million or more go to higher education, totaling $3.2 billion. That’s 9 percent higher than the $2.9 billion recorded in 2015.
  • Of the total amount given to charity in gifts of $10 million or more in 2016, higher education received almost two-thirds. That share has been about the same over the past five years.

Send an e-mail to Drew Lindsay.