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With fiscal year 2022 in the books, some colleges are reporting blockbuster fundraising years even amid economic uncertainty and a period of high inflation.

A number of colleges—public, private, both predominantly white institutions and historically Black colleges and universities—are seeing success, some reporting record donations for fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30. Broadly speaking, the results vary by institution, with some colleges missing the money train while others have cashed in on the generosity of donors.

Well-known institutions like Pennsylvania State University, the University of Oklahoma and Virginia Tech are just a handful of the many that reported fundraising years that surpassed prior records. For example, Penn State reported commitments of more than $437 million, up from the previous high of $381.2 million; the University of Oklahoma counted $317 million in gifts and pledges, surpassing last year’s record high of $237 million; and Virginia Tech hauled in $268.5 million, up from last year’s record of $200.3 million.

But it isn’t just the big-name universities that have seen a successful fundraising year. Institutions often overlooked in the national conversation—places like the University of Idaho, Wittenberg University and Fayetteville State University, are just a few examples of colleges with a more regional focus that exceeded prior fundraising records. While their fundraising numbers may fall well short of larger, more broadly known institutions’, these colleges still hit record marks with Idaho reporting $64.6 million raised, Wittenberg counting $14.7 million and Fayetteville State landing at nearly $8 million, all new highs.

Tracking Giving Trends

Philanthropy is booming. Charitable donations across all sectors, not just higher education, hit a record high of $485 billion in calendar year 2021, per the latest Giving USA Report, released in July by the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

While overall charitable giving was up by 4 percent from 2020 to 2021, those numbers fell to -0.7 percent when adjusted for inflation. But even with inflation cutting into a robust fundraising year, the numbers are strong.

“Even with those declines, 2021 was still the second-best year ever for education,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, director of the Fund Raising School at the Lilly school. “It’s a two-year growth rate of 13 percent in current dollars … That means that charitable giving in education is stronger than before the [coronavirus] pandemic started.”

The only year better than 2021 for overall education philanthropy—not just higher ed—was 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic began. Giving USA reported $72.8 billion for education in 2020 and $70.8 billion in 2021. (Giving USA tracks charitable contributions by the calendar year, not by fiscal year; results for 2022 will be available next summer.)

“It’s not surprising that charitable giving has remained robust, despite the pandemic, despite huge social concerns around racial equity, racial reconciliation, despite the uncertainty of the economy with two negative quarters, GDP, increasing inflation and so forth. But when you look at the data—and every economic challenge is different—but on average, charitable giving goes down only about one half of 1 percent, after adjusting for inflation, during a time of recession,” Stanczykiewicz explained.

While the numbers for fiscal year 2022 aren’t in yet, overall donations to higher education specifically hit $52.9 billion in fiscal year 2021, up from $49.5 billion in fiscal year 2020, according to the latest Voluntary Support of Education survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which was released in February. (Survey organizers note that Giving USA and CASE track numbers differently, both in terms of how donations are counted and how a year is measured, which is why they arrive at different conclusions.)

“That’s not surprising given where the stock market was at key points during that year,” said Ann Kaplan, senior director of the Voluntary Support of Education Survey at CASE. “It was a record-breaking stock market year. And that tends to propel large numbers of gifts to endowments. It was a strong year but not unexpected.”

Kaplan also points out there have been anomalies in higher education philanthropy in the last couple of years, namely megadonors like MacKenzie Scott and Michael Bloomberg giving away staggering sums of money, with billions of dollars flowing to their preferred causes and colleges.

How donors are giving has changed over the course of the pandemic, Stanczykiewicz said, noting that there has been a focus on serving students rather than supporting capital projects. During times of crisis—such as a pandemic—donors often give to human services, he said.

Some big donations—such as many of the gifts awarded by Scott—come with no strings attached, allowing colleges to put the money where they decide it’s most needed. Other donations have gone to student causes, such as support services. And while capital projects may be getting less attention, according to Stanczykiewicz, news releases from colleges touting multimillion-dollar donations toward such endeavors show capital projects aren’t suffering.

What’s on the Horizon

Experts say that GDP and a strong stock market are factors that shape charitable giving. So what does that mean when the stock market is in a state of flux and inflation has added financial pressure for institutions and individuals alike?

“I’m a little concerned for the next fiscal year, given what we’ve experienced in the stock market,” Kaplan said.

But a good fundraising year has buoyed many colleges, which Stanczykiewicz said “is a wonderful reminder to all fundraisers to fundraise within their context—that if they’re not Harvard, they don’t have to be Harvard. They need to focus on who they are, what their strengths are.”

With endowment returns down, student enrollment slipping across the sector and runaway inflation, colleges are facing economic pressures on multiple fronts. Big fundraising years and coronavirus relief money from the federal government have helped many ease that monetary squeeze. For those in the most difficult of circumstances, sustained philanthropy may be vital.

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