Why Do People Keep Giving Harvard Such Huge Gifts?

With the latest $150 million donation, it’s easy to think the wealthy university’s wealthy alumni simply shower them with riches. Okay, they sort of do, but it’s important to look at such gifts in the context of the school’s powerful and strategic fundraising machine, as well as some national trends. Even a record-breaking donation is just the tip of the iceberg.

Following Kenneth Griffin’s massive pledge to support Harvard College’s financial aid program, there’s been a mix of celebration and backlash. On one hand, what a great story about a self-made billionaire who wants to give more kids the opportunity he had.  

On the other hand, Harvard is the richest school in the country, by leaps and bounds. They’re sitting on a $32 billion endowment, plus who knows how much in real estate holdings. And the school’s financial aid program is in pretty good shape already, having ramped up in recent years. And while larger than some other Ivy League schools, they still only accept 6,700 undergrads, so they’re not exactly throwing the gates open to a quality education here. As Matthew Yglesias at Slate bluntly put it, it’s a “$150 million waste.”

I’ll leave the wisdom of the donation up to you to decide, reader. But I'd contend that the important thing to focus on, from a larger philanthropic standpoint, is that gifts like this one are just a glimpse into the huge fundraising machine that is Harvard, as well as a national trend in giving to colleges and universities.

Harvard is no stranger to huge donations. It wasn’t long ago that Hansjoerg Wyss gave two $125 million gifts to the school. And other universities have received even larger amounts. This might leave the impression, along with responses like the one from Yglesias, that the wealthy are mindlessly flinging riches at schools like Harvard. Or on the flip side, that the success of their alums is simply washing over the school like good karma. Neither is true. 

The fact is, whether you think they need the funding or not, since 2009, Harvard has been busting its ass to raise that kind of money, as have other schools bringing in that level of private support. They do it with long-term cultivation (we're talking years) and explicit goals and plans attached to their asks. 

In Harvard’s case, they publicly kicked off a campaign in September to raise $6.5 billion by 2018, but had been silently fundraising for the previous two years, reaching almost $3 billion toward the goal before the launch. Their campaign goals include expanding medical and clean energy research, upgrading facilities, expanding financial aid and building a new Allston campus. The effort has clearly been going on for longer than just the past couple of years. Since 2009, Harvard’s annual fundraising has increased about 30 percent, up to $792 million in 2013, according to the Council for Aid to Education

And other schools are making similar drives, including $6 billion campaigns by USC and Stanford. All of this is part of a national trend in increased private giving to U.S. colleges and universities, up 9 percent in 2013 to $33.8 billion, the biggest year ever. 

All this is to say, while $150 million is a very big single donation, it’s part of a larger trend happening at Harvard and other universities: rattled, perhaps, by the 2008 financial crisis and lagging public funding, leaning on alumni more than ever for resources. And with tuition and student loan borrowing similarly on the rise, there are far bigger concerns at play than the wisdom of big gifts like Griffin's. 

Read more about Kenneth Griffin here and here.