Medical Research

Individual donations to medical research at universities are something of an outlier because such gifts often do not come from alumni. Rather, this support comes from a wide-range of donors who are drawn to campus research pursuing breakthrough cures and treatments to diseases, as well as those engaged in foundational biomedical research.

Here at IP we've reviewed major gifts to medical research from individual donors over the past few years and are analyzing new gifts nearly every week. This guide explores who's making medical research gifts, who’s getting the money, and how such donations come together. 

Who’s Giving?

Alumni do not make most gifts to medical research, one of the most surprising facts about this type of giving. That may be an advantage for medical research fundraisers, because it allows them to cast a much wider net. At the same time, it makes it more difficult for fundraisers to identify potential donors and spot trends in giving for medical research.

If it's not alumni, who's cutting big checks for medical research? The short answer is anyone and everyone. Medical research donations are often personal in nature, in that donors either follow their research passions and interests, or they give heavily to research a disease that has touched their lives. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Billionaire Henry Kravis and his wife Marie-Josee recently gave $100 million gift to Rockefeller University in New York to create a new research facility bearing their name. The two-story Marie-Josee and Henry R. Kravis Research Building will be built on the new Stavros Niarchos Foundation–David Rockefeller River Campus and "provide lab space for scientific and educational programs." According to Rockefeller University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the gift will allow the school to "stay at the cutting edge of scientific discovery... to continue to recruit top faculty by providing them with the facilities they need to make transformative discoveries.”

Chuck Feeney recently gave $100 million to University of California, San Francisco for its new Mission Bay hospitals. The gift will pay for medical research into diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and multiple sclerosis while also supporting UCSF's Sandler Neurosciences Center.

The late Muriel Block left $160 million to Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, earmarking her gift for biomedical research.

T. Denny Sanford has also been making headlines with huge research gifts to higher education institutions nationwide, though his main geographic focus areas are South Dakota and California. Sanford gave the University of California, San Diego a $100 million gift to create the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center. In a press release the school stated, “The Sanford Center," according to a university press release, "will accelerate development of drugs and cell therapies inspired by and derived from current human stem cell research; establishing, promoting, and disseminating clinical trials and patient therapies that will help more quickly transform promise into reality.”

Sanford, a psychology major and graduate of the University of Minnesota, made his millions as the owner of First Premier Bank. He has no history or experience in stem cell research, but the promise of this type of research excites him. Like most affluent donors, Sanford follows his passions and interests in giving.

Who’s Getting?

Medical research gifts tend to go to universities that are big enough to make the most progress and exact the most change, i.e. those already flush with resources and esteemed faculty.

Major Universities

Major universities received all of the $1 million-plus grants analyzed here at IP. In what comes as a bit of a surprise, medical research programs at Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton don’t appear on our list. Institutions that received some of the biggest research gifts not mentioned above include:

  • Colorado State University received $42.5 million from John and Leslie Malone towards a new Institute for Biologic Translational Therapies on campus, a center that will focus on harnessing stem cell research to solve medical problems in animals and humans.
  • University of Texas was given $36 million gift by Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr. to establish the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
  • The University of Utah received a $50 million gift from Jon and Karen Huntsman to increase the existing research space at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
  • Peter and Nancy Meinig and their family gave $50 million to endow the School of Biomedical Engineering, which will be named for them.

We should also note Philip and Penelope Knight's $500 million gift to Oregon Health and Science University, but there was one major string attached to that gift. More on that later.

What are the Gifts For?

There is no specific pattern in giving to medical research at universities:  Donations go to fight diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to stem cell research and others. Cancer is a top priority for wealthy donors: A good portion of the $9 million gift from Francis and Muriel Jeffries targets the Big C, as does Philip and Penelope Knight’s nine-figure donation to OHSU.

How the Gifts Happen

Medical school deans are the heavy lifters in helping to bring about gifts for disease research. If a school has directors of a related research institute or separate programs doing relevant research, those officials are likely to be involved in seeking the largest gifts.

When donations for medical research gifts approach the eight- and nine-figure level, donor relations increasingly becomes a team effort, with university presidents, vice chancellors, researchers, and others such as trustees pitching in to open doors and help secure gifts.

What Strings are Attached?

With the Knights' huge gift, OHSU first had to raise $500 million on its own before it was able to tap the couple's half-billion-dollar award. OSHU had met the Knights' 2013 challenge by the end of 2015. Stipulations attached to large medical research gifts aren’t nearly as fiscally demanding as the Knights' were.

Many, if not most, contributions to university medical research are not awarded outright; instead, they are spread out over multiple years. For example, Sanford’s $100 million gift to the University of California, San Diego will be paid in 10 years, while Huntsman’s $50 million gift to the University of Utah is being doled out in five years.

Insights and Tips

In fundraising for medical research, colleges and universities cannot rely too heavily on alumni, as they do with other types of donations. While cancer research is a big draw for many donors, others are far more driven by their interest in or experience with other debilitating conditions and potential solutions such as stem cell research. If they are able to appeal to a wider pool of non-alumni donors in seeking donations for research, fundraisers in higher education may find that it is a limited donor group, depending on the type of medical research their institution does, the rarity of the related disease, and other factors.

For medical research, fundraisers cannot look to any specific industry in finding donors; instead, they must learn each potential donor's interests and experiences and find a way to link those things to research projects that excite the person or family enough to join the ranks of a university's most generous supporters. Whether those passions are a donor's personal desire to help other parents with adult autistic children, another person's desire to cure Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Sanford's stem cell research interests, or something else entirely, passion is the sweet spot for donors who support medical research.