Philanthropy targeting diseases comprises a large percentage of healthcare giving from individual donors. A recent study by the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy demonstrated that the more fundraisers a health institution employs, the more money they will raise. After reviewing hundreds of individual donations in various areas of the healthcare industry, we know that fundraising for the new construction of hospitals and health centers tops the list of gifts. But individual donations toward the research, study and treatment of diseases is not far behind. 

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

Who’s Giving?

The typical individual donor making big disease-related gifts comes from one of two camps — either the donor has a personal connection to the disease or condition, or the donor has a personal connection to the institution to which he or she is making a donation. Often it’s both. Here are few examples: 

  • Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center received a $20 million bequest from Albert “Skip” Viragh to establish the Skip Viragh Center for Pancreas Cancer, Clinical Research, and Patient Care Center. Mr. Viragh was treated at the center for pancreatic cancer before his passing in 2003.
  • After Donald Goodman was successfully treated for acute myelogenous leukemia with an experimental drug at University Hospital’s Ireland Cancer Center, Goodman and his wife Ruth pledged a bequest of $35 million to the Cleveland based hospital system.
  • Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota received a $100 million gift to be paid out over five years from Richard O. Jacobson toward its targeted proton beam therapy program for cancer patients. Jacobson has received care from Mayo since he was a child. 

In terms of how these individual donors made their fortunes, no set pattern emerges. What's clear is that individual donors in the northeastern and western regions of the U.S. account for the heaviest concentration of $1 million-plus gifts toward disease-related causes.

Who’s Getting?

Academic institutions, major hospitals and health centers receive the most attention from individual donors in this giving space. National organizations for specific diseases such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and Autism Speaks also receive their fair share of donations, though their totals are around one-tenth of what major universities and hospitals rake in. Here’s a picture of what individual funding toward major hospitals and health centers looks like: 

  • David Koch gave $150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City, where he's been a member of the board of trustees for 25 years, to build the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care.
  • Denny Sanford gave to what is now known as the Sanford Health Foundation $100 million to establish the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Center. In addition to the research and treatment of breast cancer patients, Sanford’s $100 million will support the exploration of the genetic code of women.
  • Patrick Soon-Shiong and Michele B. Chan gifted St. John’s Health Center $65 million toward the support of research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
  • The Peckham family donated $10 million to Rady Children’s Hospital toward the support of blood disorder and cancer programs.

Among donations to major universities and academic institutions: 

  • Laura and Isaac Perlmutter gave $50 million to NYU Langone, which renamed its cancer center the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone as a result.
  • Erwin and Stephanie Cooper Greenberg gave $15 million to create the Johns Hopkins Greenberg Bladder Cancer Institute.
  • Sanford and Joan Weill gave Cornell $100 million to support the Joan and Sanford U. Weill Cancer Research Center and the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Metabolic Syndrome Center.
  • Mortimer Zuckerman gave Columbia $200 million to endow the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. The gift will primarily support interdisciplinary neuroscience research.

Comparatively, individual donations to national disease-specific organizations are much smaller. Here's a look at some of the larger gifts we uncovered in this category:

  • The Michael J. Fox Foundation received a $40 million gift from Andy Grove in support of the foundation’s pursuit of a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association received a $27 million gift from Helen Banas toward general support efforts the association gives to individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s.
  • Autism Speaks received a gift of $3 million from Charles Meixner toward research for new autism treatments.

Although there are a handful of nine-figure donations given to national organizations focusing on specific diseases, these large gifts are not the norm. Most fall between one and seven million dollars.

What are the Gifts for?

If you sensed a heavy cancer focus when looking over the individual gifts described above, you’re on to something. No other disease receives as much focus — or money — from individual donors as cancer. Neurological disorders are just behind cancer in terms of attention and money from individuals, though even at close to $1 billion in donations, neurological disorders only took in about one-third of the funds directed at cancer research. (For more information about brain research, check out our guide for individual giving to brain research).

After cancer and neurological disorders, heart disease is the third most heavily funded area by individual donors in this giving space.

How the Gifts Happen

There isn’t anything unusual about how these major gifts take place. Generally, development executives do the heavy lift, bringing in heads of departments, presidents or board chairs into the donor cultivation process when necessary. 

In many cases, individual donors make these gifts without solicitation, based on a personal or professional relationship with the healthcare facility or a personal experience with the disease.

What Strings are Attached?

The biggest string attached to individual giving toward diseases is that these gifts are often doled out over time. Typically, even with gifts in the hundred million dollar range, the money is spread out over ten years or less.

Naming rights are also a big condition in this giving space. Big-dollar donors almost always want their name plastered somewhere in the hospital, health center or university to which they are writing checks. Sometimes, the name of an entire hospital is changed to bear the donors name; most often though, naming is relegated to a wing, pavilion, media center or program.

Insights and Tips

Regardless of the good works that hospitals, universities and research institutions are undertaking, personal connections have the strongest influence over an individual’s decision to make a $1 million plus donation. Here’s a quick look at just how influential these connections are over gifts both big and small: 

  • Daniel and Margaret Loeb gave $15 million to Mt. Sinai Hospital to establish the Ronald M. Loeb Center for Alzheimer’s Disease. Loeb's father passed away from the disease.
  • Ed and Sue Goldstein gave the Cancer Institute of New Jersey $5 million toward the support of cancer research and treatment. Two of the Goldstein’s daughters died of cancer.
  • Jen-Hsun and Lori Huang gave Oregon Health & Science University $5 million in honor of the OHSU Cancer Institute director, Brian Druker. Druker invented the cancer drug that was used to treat Huang’s father.
  • T. Boone Pickens gave Baylor Health Care System $10 million to support its cancer hospital. Pickens’ friend Harley Hotchkiss died of cancer. 

We could go on for a while with such examples, but you probably get the picture.

Personal and professional connections aside, the vast majority of $1 million-plus donors are interested in facilities and projects close to home. Exceptions to this general geographic rule involve individual donations to prominent, internationally recognized hospitals and health centers, such as the Mayo Clinics in Rochester, Minnesota and the Cleveland Clinic. Even then, big money donors still tend to have a personal connection with the institution (Read more about individual gifts to hospitals and health centers).

Finally, landing a million-dollar-plus donation from an individual donor doesn’t always take years of donor cultivation. However, according to hospital CEOs, presidents and board chairs, most large and very generous donations usually involve personal relationships with the hospital or health center over a number of years.