How campuses attract multi-million dollar donations

Even schools not matching the typical profile are getting large gifts by engaging donors in creative ways

What makes a college or university more likely to attract million-dollar gifts? It may not be surprising to learn that longer presidential tenure, the age of an institution, strong alumni networks, and national college rankings help schools win big donations.

But even schools not matching the typical profile are getting large gifts by engaging donors in creative ways. It’s all according to new research by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Johnson Grossnickle and Associates.

For the “Million Dollar Ready” report, researchers compiled publicly-announced donations of $1 million or more made to U.S. institutions between 2000 to 2012, and then analyzed which traits made a school more or less likely to receive a major gift. Only a third of all institutions had received a publicly-announced gift of $1 million or more.

Institutions founded prior to 1900 tend to receive more $1 million-plus donations in higher amounts. Schools founded since 1950 received 12 percent fewer million-dollar gifts compared to older institutions. But the study found more newer universities are starting to get this type of gift, says Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

For example, the researchers learned that Arizona State University—which was given its current name in 1958 and became classified as a Research 1 institute in 1994—has had a lot of success in receiving major donations.

“In a very short space of time, they had changed their classification, changed their ranking, became one of the top-ranked institutions in the country, and structured their program around innovation and affordability,” says Osili. “What’s clear from the data is that they’ve been very intentional about engaging donors, not just alumni.”

She says Arizona State can serve as an example for fundraisers at other, newer universities whose administrators may feel their efforts are a lost cause because they simply don’t have the history of other major institutions.

The researchers also found that a national ranking—such as being among the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings in 2000—was associated with a 61 percent increase in the number of million-dollar gifts received by an institution.

As for the value of those gifts, researchers discovered there was a 156 percent increase. In addition, rural institutions received 11 percent fewer million-dollar gifts than non-rural colleges and universities.


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