Dating Scene: Which of the Emerging Philanthropists Are Making Campus Gifts?

Fundraisers everywhere are keen to get their hands on the mountains of new wealth that have built up over recent years, particularly in tech and finance. Many end up deeply frustrated. It isn’t easy to connect with emerging philanthropists, who often fly beneath the radar or have little infrastructure for handling pleas for grants.

You may hear about this or that newish foundation, brimming with assets and pumping grants out the door, and yet see few pathways to get at this money.

Of course, if you work hard enough, some entry point may well be found. The nagging question for fundraisers, though, is how much to try to go after this new money. Will such treasure hunts pay off or not?

One way for campus development folks to answer this question is to better understand the wide spectrum of attitudes that today’s new philanthropists have towards universities.

Some of these donors have zero interest in making campus gifts, on principle. Others are likely to be red-hot prospects. Many are somewhere in between.

So how do you tell where a new philanthropist is on this spectrum—and make sure you don’t waste a lot of time going down dead ends?

One helpful exercise is to imagine various kinds of emerging philanthropists grouped along a thermometer, in terms of how open they’re likely to be campus giving. Let’s give that a whirl.

(The generalizations that follow are based on IP’s analysis of hundreds of new donors, mainly from tech and finance, and also on our analysis of numerous campus gifts over recent years.)

The Frigid Zone

At the bottom of the thermometer, where it’s blue cold, are emerging donors who are not your friends. Foremost among these are the new crop of effective altruists who want to maximize their giving to improve or save human lives. Quite a few younger tech donors embrace this outlook, channeling their giving to causes like buying bed nets to prevent malaria. Wealthy elite universities are about the last place where they’d give their money. A case in point: you don’t see Good Ventures, the new foundation created by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, making gifts to universities. Their biggest grants have gone for global health and development, a popular area for effective altruists who want a lot of bang for the buck.

The frigid zone often contains activist funders who are impatient to drive forward a particular cause. Maybe it’s curbing climate change or ending gun violence or advancing LGBT rights. These funders typically want to put their money into organizations working on the front lines of policy and advocacy battles, or at a grassroots level. They, too, are likely to be hostile to the idea of cutting checks to ivory tower types.  

Finally, and related, emerging philanthropists who pride themselves on being “strategic” can be super-tough nuts to crack for campus fundraisers. Why? Because they take a dim view of the primitive world of “relationship giving,” which is so often the basis of successful cultivation by universities.

The Temperate Zone

The good news is that only a small slice of the new philanthropists are likely to be opposed on principle to campus giving. Instead, many of these donors can be located in the temperate zone. They may not be naturally inclined to give to universities, but are open to cultivation if you can make a good case.

For starters, some donors who generally pride themselves on a strategic approach also leave room in their philanthropy for giving to institutions to which they have a personal connection. Bill Ackman is a good example. His Pershing Square Foundation takes a clearly defined strategic approach, but Ackman has also made some big gifts to his alma mater, Harvard University.

That’s not unusual. When we analyze the giving of emerging donors at IP, we’ll often see donors who are quite strategic and focused, targeting particular causes over time—but also making room for regular gifts to their alma maters.

Philanthropists who see themselves as effective altruists or social change funders can also be open to the right kinds of asks by campus fundraisers. Donors laser-focused on saving lives can be excited by biomedical research, where universities are often leaders. And activist funders can be lured in by campus policy work and scholarship on specific issues, like the environment or gender equity. Equity-minded funders can also be drawn to fostering more opportunities for low-income students of color in universities—whether through scholarships or other programs.

What’s notable about some of the donors in the temperate zone is that they don’t necessarily need to be alumni to be strong prospects. If your school is doing work that advances their agenda or interests, or can initiate such work, serious money can follow. Charles Koch is a top example of a campus donor who gives many millions to numerous schools, as part of an effort to advance an ideological agenda.  

The Hot Zone

So, of all the new rich people around these days, who are likely to be the very best friends of campus fundraisers? Who’s at the top of the thermometer, ready to quickly warm up to cultivation efforts?

Most obvious are alumni loyalists who, as the years go on, find themselves rolling in spare cash—or maybe score wealth suddenly in a major “liquidity event.” The loyalists are easy to identify. They’ve been steady givers for years, they come to reunions, they join committees, and so on. When these folks get rich, their alma maters almost always do well, too. At IP, we’ve written about innumerable gifts by loyalists whose fortunes have recently improved.

As a broader point, alums who score sudden windfalls, or begin to focus on philanthropy in a big way, tend to be great prospects. Even if these people aren’t likely to be top university donors over time, they may see their alma mater as an easy place to make a quick, big gift after they score new wealth. I’m thinking of a guy like Brendan Iribe, who made a fortune selling Oculus to Facebook not long ago, and quickly turned around to give $31 million to his alma mater, University of Maryland. As a young techie, Iribe fits the profile of a strategic philanthropist and it could be that UM won’t see much money from him down the line. But clearly Iribe wanted to do something quickly to give back after he made so much money. Steve and Connie Ballmer also come to mind. After Steve retired as Microsoft’s CEO, the first big gifts he and his wife made were to their alma maters—even as they are are reportedly mulling how to enter philanthropy in a bigger, more strategic way.

A last category of great prospects in the hot zone of new philanthropists are alumni with no real passions or causes of their own—and yet who believe in philanthropy. There are many more of these folks than you might think. People who devote themselves to business with enough fanaticism to end up very rich sometimes don’t develop many outside interests along the way. So when the time comes to unload some of their wealth, they don’t have an obvious list of places to put that money. That sounds kind of sad—unless you’re a university fundraiser with lots of exciting ideas for how their money could transform a campus!


The scale of new wealth that’s been created in recent decades is hard to fathom. There are thousands of U.S. households with assets over $100 million, and tens of thousands with the wealth to make seven-figure campus gifts. More of these people are setting up foundations and donor-advised funds every day, actively looking to dispose of some of their money in the philanthropic marketplace.

But that marketplace is a bit like a dating scene. Some people are just never going to be interested in you—while others are totally your type. The sooner you realize who’s who, the better.