Growing Share of ‘Megagifts’ Goes to Colleges, Hospitals, and Museums, Study Finds

Colleges, hospitals, and museums, long at the top of the list for America’s biggest donors and grant makers, are receiving a growing slice of multimillion-dollar gifts, according to a new study.

The study, by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in San Francisco, focused on donations of $1-million or more made in 2001 to 2003.

Among the biggest gifts — those worth $10-million or more — nearly eight out of every ten dollars went to colleges and universities, health or medical organizations, or arts and culture institutions, according to the study. That’s up from 65 percent among donations of similar size made from 1995 to 2000.

The trend raises critical questions about what drives charitable giving at the highest levels, says Gary A. Tobin, president of the institute and co-author of the report on the study’s results. And examining those questions, he says, may help more charities and a more diverse mix of charities find a way to share in the largess.

“Is it the prestige of the institutions getting the biggest gifts?” Mr. Tobin asks. “Is it the social, economic and political network of donors? Do these institutions have better fund-raising mechanisms? Are other organizations not making their case?”

The study was based on an analysis of more than 8,000 gifts or grants of $1-million or more made by individuals, businesses, and foundations from 2001 to 2003. The list of donations was compiled from news accounts, tax records, and other sources, and represents all of the large contributions known to have been paid or pledged during the three-year period.

Some of the data was compared with results of a 2003 study by the research institute that looked at contributions of $10-million or more made from 1995 to 2000.

Among the big donations from 2001 to 2003, higher-education institutions were by far the most-common recipients. Gifts and grants to colleges and universities accounted for 37 percent of the donations, representing 44 percent of the total dollars. For the 110 gifts of $50-million or more, higher education garnered 58 of the donations and 50 percent of the dollars.

The report notes a significant shift in the type of colleges and universities attracting the biggest gifts, however.

In the earlier study, private institutions received 28 percent of the total dollars coming from donations of $10-million or more, while public institutions drew in 13 percent of the money. From 2001 to 2003, among the gifts and grants of $10-million or more, the share of money private institutions received dipped to 26 percent, while the public institutions’ share climbed to 21 percent.

“There’s increased awareness that public colleges and universities are becoming more reliant on private donors as funds from government sources are either frozen or going down in many places,” Mr. Tobin says.

Over all, higher education did far better than its next closest competitor in the search for big gifts: health. Health and medical institutions received 16 percent of the gift dollars, while arts and culture groups hauled in 12 percent. Other types of charities received tiny shares of the pot, including those that provide social services (5 percent); protect the environment (4 percent); or run umbrella appeals to benefit multiple groups (2 percent).

Near the bottom of the list, too, were religious organizations, which received only 2 percent of the total money from big gifts and grants.

Mr. Tobin noted that finding shows a contrast in giving patterns between wealthy Americans and those who are less affluent.

“Religion is the largest category in America for everyday donors, but not for foundations and the wealthy,” says Mr. Tobin. “There’s a real split between where all Americans give and where the largest gifts go.”

(According to Giving USA, the annual tally of charitable donations, religious charities have long captured the biggest share of all contributions from Americans. Last year, such gifts accounted for one-third of the total.)

The other author of the study is Aryeh K. Weinberg, a research associate at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.