Charitable giving to US universities fell slightly last year

Annual survey attributes decline to pandemic and large Bloomberg donation the previous year, but says Black Lives Matter movement ‘likely played a positive role’ in philanthropy

February 9, 2021
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US universities’ philanthropic donations declined slightly last academic year for the first time in a decade, according to new figures.

report from Case, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, estimates that US colleges and universities raised $49.5 billion (£35.9 billion) during the 2019-20 academic year, a slight drop from the $49.6 billion raised the year before.

However, nearly half – 48.6 per cent – of institutions reported that charitable giving had risen in 2020, with the study concluding that voluntary support of higher education institutions was “essentially flat” last academic year. The figures were based on a survey of 873 institutions.

The report notes that the first half of the fiscal year was “part of the longest economic expansion in US history”, with all four major stock market indexes increasing between July and December 2019. However, it says that the Covid-19 pandemic caused the nation to plunge into a recession, adding that the “combination of expansion and recession in one fiscal year underlies the lacklustre results”.

It says that the pandemic may have led donors to shift giving to causes such as human services and affected how philanthropy staff within universities approached donors. Some institutions reported that they reached out to donors but without asking for contributions as they usually would at the end of the fiscal year, while others said they made the case that their services to students were “in the human services realm”.

The study also suggests that Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University in 2018-19 inflated that year’s total. If that contribution were removed from 2018-19 figures, giving in 2019-20 would have increased by 3.6 per cent, it says.

The largest share of donations last year came from foundations, which accounted for 33.2 per cent of all philanthropic giving ($16.4 billion). Meanwhile, the source that contributed the largest increase in support (a 7 per cent rise to $6.7 billion) was “other organisations”, which includes institutions that are not corporations or foundations and is largely attributed to donor-advised funds.

The report also suggests that the Black Lives Matter movement “likely played a positive role in giving to US colleges” last year and during the current academic year.

“While the survey does not ask about specific drivers of contributions, anecdotal evidence indicates that donors supported colleges that were playing key roles in advancing the movement’s objectives,” it says, highlighting that Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and his wife gave $120 million to two historically black colleges and the United Negro College Fund at the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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