News and analysis
February 19, 2015

Mega-Gifts on the Rise at Colleges, Study Says

Huge gifts to universities continued to grow for the second year in a row in 2014, with 43 donations of more than $50-million, according to an annual study.

Those megagifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations reached their highest level in the 16 years that Marts & Lundy, a philanthropy consultant, has tracked large donations to higher education. The company used news sources, including The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s America’s Top Donor’s list of the biggest gifts, to compile its findings. The study includes contributions to university hospitals and medical centers and exclude bequests.

The Chronicle’s list differs from the Marts & Lundy findings in that it includes bequests and does not include gifts from foundations or corporate support.

While huge gifts surged, the total number of gifts greater than $1-million declined by 8 percent.

Higher education’s share of all philanthropic gifts of $1-million or more, as measured by The Chronicle’s America’s Top Donors list, declined slightly last year, from 63 percent to 61 percent.

John Cash, Marts & Lundy’s chairman, said he couldn’t explain the rise of the megagifts as smaller seven-figure donations fell.

"The drop really surprises me," he said.

Bull Market

In 2007, donors made 36 donations of more than $50-million to colleges and universities. That number dropped the next year and reached a nadir in 2009 as the nation was mired in a recession, when higher education received only seven gifts of $50-million or more. By 2013, big contributions rebounded, with institutions snaring 34 donations of more than $50-million, as the stock market continued to notch gains and the broader economy regained lost ground.

"Big gifts are tied to the capital markets and did well in those big, bull market years," Mr. Cash says.

Of the gifts made in 2014 by people on The Chronicle's Philanthropy 50 list of top donors, about 15 percent went to colleges and universities.

According to The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50 study of the biggest donors of 2014, higher-education institutions received $1.5-billion from big donors, who placed a great emphasis on giving to cutting-edge medical research.

The Marts & Lundy survey findings were similar: Fifty-one percent of the large gifts to higher education went to university hospital centers and health programs, up from 41 percent in 2013.

Instead of being driven by a sense of loyalty to their alma mater, Mr. Cash said, many of his clients prefer to give to institutions that are on the cusp of big breakthroughs.

"Donors are giving their big gifts to support research," he says. "They’re much more opportunistic. They’re not building buildings and creating monuments to themselves."

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