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Higher Ed Giving Jumped To $52.9 Billion In 2021

Foundations continued to be the largest donors to higher education in the United States, helping to boost giving 6.9% for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2021 to $52.9 billion, up from $49.50 billion. And, unrestricted gifts surged 30.2%.

The Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) shows remarkable stability from 2020 in the five categories tracked – alumni, non-alumni, corporations, foundations and others. There was one point or less in the deviation in the year-over-year percentages of categories to total giving.

Foundations (33.1%) and alumni (23.2%) continue to be lead benefactors of U.S. higher education. Non-alumni gifts by individuals were 16.6% ($8.8 billion) and have ranged from 5 to 8 points behind alumni giving the past five years.

“There are many reasons why someone who did not attend an institution would be engaged with and contribute to it. Institutions are involved in activities in addition to education,” said Senior Director of CASE VSE Ann E. Kaplan. “For example, some have medical research facilities, art museums, and auxiliary enterprises that interest a range of donors. Universities are, in a sense, multipurpose organizations that can make the case for support in an array of disciplines.”

The percentage of non-alumni giving did tick upward in this new study, although the number has been declining, potentially a shift in category given donor-advised funds and family foundations, she said.

“The incredible generosity during the most challenging period in generations demonstrates how strongly alumni and other supporters value colleges and universities in the United States,” according to CASE President & CEO Sue Cunningham. “People took notice and invested in the transformational work conducted at America’s colleges and universities. This is a powerful indicator of how valuable and valued these institutions are.”

The overall increase in giving was driven in large part by alumni, whose contributions increased 10.8% during the 2021 fiscal year. Alumni giving earmarked for capital purposes jumped 23.4%, and alumni giving for current operations also grew strongly at 6.3%.

Capital purpose gifts include gifts to endowments, gifts of or for property, buildings, and equipment, gifts to loan funds, and irrevocable deferred gifts. In 2021, gifts from all donor types to restricted endowments rose 16.7% while all other types of capital purpose gifts were either unchanged or declined.

“Gifts to endowments are earmarked for scholarships more than any other purpose,” said Kaplan, noting that donors restricted 38.2% of such gifts for student financial aid. “The hardships that many students experienced over recent years likely formed the basis of fundraising appeals, and it appears donors responded. While such contributions remain among of the smallest categories of gifts, representing 7.4% of the 2021 total, they can be transformative,” Kaplan said.

Community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), for instance, were among those that reported large increases in unrestricted gifts. Fifteen community colleges and 11 HBCUs reported their gift receipts had more than doubled, a rise that included more unrestricted contributions.

Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott played a role in many of these institutions’ increased contribution receipts, as did large gifts from Michael Bloomberg to several HBCU medical schools, one of which reported to the CASE VSE survey in 2021.

“We’ve seen overall increases in unrestricted giving in response to the visibility of stark local needs, which were exacerbated by the pandemic,” said CASE Vice President for Data, Research, and TechnologyCara Giacomini. “This general trend along with a recognition and desire among those with means to bridge those gaps boosted giving to certain institutions.”

During the past two decades, contributions from donor-advised funds (DAF) rose from less than 2% of total support to nearly 10%. In addition, their prominence in the category “Other Organizations,” in which they are mingled with other types of organizations, rose from 20% of that category to more than 80%. In view of the significant role such entities play in contemporary philanthropy, DAFs will appear as a distinct category of donor on the next CASE VSE survey.

See more findings here from the 2020-2021 CASE VSE survey. For additional context about what undergirds CASE’s benchmarking surveys visit the Global Reporting Standards.