BOSTON – The number of so-called mega donations to U.S. colleges is rebounding just as Harvard University begins a $6.5 billion capital campaign, the largest in the history of higher education.
There have been 16 gifts this year of at least $50 million, twice as many as for all of last year as donors gain confidence amid improving economic conditions, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Developer Stephen Ross gave $200 million to the University of Michigan while Qualcomm Inc. co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife donated $133 million to Cornell University. Last week, former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt gave $100 million to Georgetown University.
They not only have more confidence, they have more wealth to give away, said Donald Fellows, president and chief executive officer of Marts and Lundy, a philanthropy consulting firm based in Lyndhurst, N.J. The institutions have greater needs and priorities too so they are also probably being more aggressive.
The importance of large gifts to capital campaigns cant be overstated, according to John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Washington. Just 1 percent of donors account for 87 percent of the money raised by U.S. universities and colleges in campaigns of $1 billion or more, he said.
The pace of philanthropy in higher education is closely tied to the performance of the U.S. stock market. The number of mega gifts plummeted to eight in 2009 from 28 the year before after an economic recession and global credit crisis undermined equities, resulting in a 38 percent drop in the Standard & Poors 500 Index in 2008.
While gifts rebounded in 2010 and 2011, they dropped again last year amid the Eurozone crisis, when Greece and other poor countries flirted with defaults and debated abandoning the single currency used by much of the continent.
While the S&P 500 posted no gain in 2011, it gained 13 percent last year and is up 20 percent this year through Sept. 20.
As wealth grows and people become more confident, their giving tends to follow that growth in confidence, said Tim Seiler, director of The Fund Raising School at Indiana University.
Harvards aim to raise $6.5 billion by 2018 eclipses the $6 billion goal set in 2011 by the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Stanford University, near Palo Alto, Calif., established new standards by amassing $6.23 billion in donations in a campaign that ended in 2011, beyond its goal of $4.3 billion.
Harvards fundraising effort is its first since 1999, when the school raised $2.65 billion over seven years.