After a bit of a lull back in 2009, individual giving toward brain research has been steadily gaining steam. Neuroscience research is certainly in vogue, and this demand for understanding how the brain works is being met by a steady supply of individual gifts. This increase in funding isn't simply due to a few one-off, huge donations — though gifts in the eight and nine digit figures are also on the rise.

Here at IP we have reviewed major brain research gifts from individual donors over the past five years and are analyzing new gifts nearly every week. This guide explores who's making the gifts, what institutions are getting the money and what strings are attached to how the money is spent.

Who’s Giving?

Individual donors in this giving space comprise a small, diverse group. Titans of finance, real estate moguls and individuals with family wealth all contribute toward brain research; some donors give big to multiple institutions each year. Catherine Ivy is a prime example.

Mrs. Ivy’s late husband Ben died just four months after receiving his brain cancer diagnosis. Catherine Ivy has given big to brain research institutions around the country ever since, with the majority of her donations earmarked toward brain cancer and tumor research. She recently gave $5 million to the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona to support the research of John Carpten and David Craig. In the same year, she also gave the Mayo Clinic $1.2 million toward the study and development of brain tumor vaccines.

Prior to her gift supporting Carpten and Craig’s research, Catherine Ivy gave the Translational Genomics Research Institute $10 million for the study of patients who lived beyond 18 months after their diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, a highly specific type of brain cancer. Prior to his passing, Ben Ivy was the president of Ivy Financial Enterprises, an investment advisory firm that specialized in real estate investments.

In one of the largest most gifts toward brain research of late, Paul Allen gave the Allen Institute for Brain Science more than $500 million; the Institute has been in operation since 2003. These funds went to support research efforts aimed at discovering how a healthy brain functions, as well as research toward how to best treat specific neurological disorders.

In addition to the more than $500 million gift to the Allen Institute, the Microsoft cofounder also donated $2.4 million to a two year study of traumatic brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (any syndrome affecting the whole brain). The study is a joint effort between the Allen Institute and the University of Washington. As the owner of two professional sports teams, including the Seattle Seahawks, Allen was the only NFL owner to give a substantial gift toward the study of two conditions that are quickly becoming a grave concern for football players at all levels. 

Who’s Getting?

The vast majority of neurological research going on around the country is occurring at universities and research institutions.

Universities edge out research institutions in total individual donations, but not by much — around $15 to $10 million more in gifts were received by universities in recent years. Both also receive large gifts in the $100 to $300 million range relatively regularly. The main difference between the two is how donations are used: 

  • Universities tend to focus the funds on chair and professorship endowments first and foremost, followed by research on specific neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s and brain cancer.
  • Research institutions, including standalone institutions as well as research hospitals, tend to focus individual donations on neurological research as a whole first and specific conditions second. Generally speaking, there is no pattern regarding which conditions are researched most often. Coming in a distant second in dollar terms is individual giving to hospitals and health centers for the express purpose of the constructing new neurological research and treatment centers.

By the way, if you're looking for foundation-based funding in brain research in addition to individual funding, our Fundraising for Brain Research Guide is one of the best places to start. 

What are the Gifts For?

Overall, most individual donations in this giving space support general treatment and research efforts for neurological diseases and disorders. Few are earmarked toward the research of specific diseases. Of those few, traumatic brain injury (TBI) in military vets is receiving an increased amount of attention recently. For example, Steve and Alexandra Cohen's $17 million gift to NYU's Langone Medical Center to establish a center for the study and treatment of PTSD and TBI in vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ray and Mary Hass also gave to support brain research for vets with a $3 million gift to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which studies TBI in vets. 

The research and treatment of neurological disorders and diseases — such as brain cancer, brain tumors, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorders — receive regular attention from individual donors. Alzheimer’s research garners the highest dollar amounts, followed by brain cancer and brain tumors. Individual funding toward the research and treatment of Parkinson’s and autism are relatively equal, both in number of donations and total amounts received. Here are a few examples: 

  • Robert and Renee Belfer gave the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas $25 million to establish the Neurodegeneration Consortium, which is "working to lessen the physically and financially debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases."
  • Daniel and Margaret Loeb gave $15 million to Mt. Sinai Hospital to establish the Ronald M. Loeb Center for Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Kenneth Peak gifted Methodist Hospital System in Houston, Texas $10 million toward the establishment of a brain and pituitary tumor treatment center, which will be named after Mr. Peak.

How the Gifts Happen

Brain and neurological fundraising is typically a concerted effort on the part of the development executives and the heads of departments and research programs. Hospital execs and board members almost always get involved when the gift is substantial.

Fundraising for brain research at universities follows a similar pattern, wherein the heads of departments, college deans and development executives getting involved in the donor cultivation process. Provosts, presidents and board chairs are often brought in at the end to help seal the deal. 

What Strings are Attached?

Individual gifts toward brain research come with very few conditions attached. If a large donation establishes a program, endows a chair or professorship, or goes toward new construction or the rennovations, endowments and buildings nearly always bear the name of the big money donor. This is especially true for new building construction and expansions.

Other than naming rights, the aforementioned donor designations are probably the most prevalent condition attached to these $1 million-plus gifts.

Insights and Tips

What’s interesting about this giving space is that the individual donations are nearly always due to a personal connection or experience the donor has with brain diseases and disorders. Here’s a quick look at a few of those connections: 

  • Paul Allen's mother suffered from Alzheimer’s. Allen founded the Allen Institute in Seattle with an inital $100 million in seed funding, and has given the institute more than $500 million to date.
  • Mark and Mary Stevens gave USC $50 million to endow and name the Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute. The research hub aims to foster the "translation of basic research into new therapies, preventions and cures for brain injury and disease, including Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury." Stevens father has Alzheimer's and one of the couple's sons has dyslexia.
  • Richard Freidman gave Mount Sinai $20 million to create the Friedman Brain Institute. Friedman’s interest in neurosciences and brain-related diseases was prompted when his son began his studies in neuroscience and took a summer internship at Mt. Sinai. 

Hospitals and health centers receiving $1 million-plus donations toward brain research are typically bigger, more well-known institutions like the Mayo Clinic, Swedish Medical Center (AZ) and NYU's Langone Medical Center. Big gifts to small, community-based hospitals happen rarely if ever. The same is true for universities — bigger, more renowned schools like Columbia, UCLA and USC are the fundraising darlings of brain research, while smaller schools are largely ignored. (Check out IPs Campus Cash Guide to see what else invidual donors like to fund in higher education).

Individual donors for brain research tend to look for programs that are doing cutting edge, innovative science. Status quo research doesn't excite multi-million dollar donors.