For many institutions, a significant gift that advances the mission is an aspirational achievement, one that can impact many lives for the good, both on the campus and far beyond.
And in today’s high-stakes higher education funding model, advancement professionals are expected to find and secure these substantial and transformational gifts, working in partnership with their academic colleagues, institutional leadership and potential donors to help our institutions fulfill their missions, at least, and change the world, at best.
In 2009, the number of institutions in the United States with active fund-raising campaigns of $1 billion or more was 38. That number increased to 45 by 2015, with an additional 4 outside the U.S. To achieve these outcomes, institutions will need to secure more and more gifts of at least $1 million. In 2013 alone, 531 donations of at least $1 million and 147 contributions equal to or greater than $10 million were given to American colleges and universities, which means that yesteryear’s $1 million gift is tomorrow’s $400 million donation.
There is nothing wrong with institutions -- even those that are well endowed -- seeking the resources they need to provide world-class educations and experiences to their students today and well into the future. And now the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is a significant step closer to achieving that goal based on John A. Paulson’s remarkable $400 million gift.
That success should be celebrated alongside the fund-raising successes of many institutions across the country. But I’ve read critiques that state Paulson should have given his gift elsewhere -- somewhere more “worthy” or more “needy.” But the reality is that donors support the causes for which they are passionate. And in that way, all gifts are worthy.
This criticism, if left unanswered, could create an environment in which donors are more reticent with their philanthropic investments or prefer to make anonymous gifts. Were that to be the case, our institutions would be the poorer -- impacting students and life-changing research.
Most major gifts are tied to a long and carefully built relationship where the donor’s vision and institution’s priorities overlap in areas in which they can, together, make a transformational impact. And I believe Paulson’s gift to the engineering college is such an investment. A successful hedge fund manager, he clearly has a strong business acumen and the ability to invest smartly.
Harvard successfully made the case for the impact his gift can make for future students and for American innovation writ large. Paulson affirmed his appreciation for his alma mater by saying, “There is no question that the support and education I received at Harvard was critical in helping me achieve success in my career. Now I feel it is important for me to do something impactful and meaningful for Harvard.”
That type of enthusiasm for advancing education should unite, not divide us. Donors are often motivated by gratitude combined with a passion for philanthropy and investing in education -- whether they be five-dollar annual contributors or alumni with greater means.
Higher education and the general public’s celebration of a $400 million gift (the ninth largest to higher education) would seem to me appropriate because we know that the impact, visibility and scale of a gift of this significance has the ability to inspire further philanthropy to academe, including at many of the institutions that have more modest endowments or level of private support. Harvard’s success does not impede the ability of other institutions to approach their alumni and potential supporters for similarly transformational gifts. In fact, it encourages it.
I challenge all of us to laud Paulson’s record-breaking contribution and then get back out there, make the case for our institutions’ experience and outcomes and ask for others to be similarly inspired to make a profound difference.
Sue Cunningham is president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
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