There are a few front-runner favorites when it comes to attracting large individual giving for medical research, but not many. A recent study by the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy demonstrated that the more fundraisers a health institution employs, the more money they will raise. This giving space is one of the most diverse in health-related giving and at times can seem like a bit of a maze. But with billions of individual donor dollars going toward medical research efforts, it’s a maze worth navigating.

Here at IP, we have reviewed major medical 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, who's getting the money and what strings are attached to how the money is spent.

Who’s Giving?

After taking a five-year look at trends in individual giving toward medical research, here’s what we know: 

  • Individual donors in the western U.S. are the most generous toward medical research efforts, doling out close to $1.4 billion over the time period we analyzed.
  • In a surprising upset, donors in the Midwest came in as the second largest group of individual donors focusing on medical research, with over $700 million in pledges made and money given.
  • Donors in the Northeastern region of the US came in a not-so-distant third, with over $650 million in gifts made over the time period analyzed. 

If this were a race, individual donors in the Southern region of the US would come in last place. Of course, in reality everybody wins when $300 million more goes toward medical research.

What’s interesting is that the most generous donors — those donating $10 million or more to medical research — are in the Midwest. Of the over $700 million in medical research dollars attributable to individual donors in this region, close to 50% of those donations were for amounts of $10 million or more.

For development officers and fundraisers looking to target a specific industry in which big-fish donors have amassed their wealth, finance industry giants lead the giving pack by far in medical research. However, this is definitely a mixed giving space with donations coming from a bunch of different areas of wealth including oil, energy, real estate and family wealth.

To give you an idea of what this looks like, Eli and Edythe Broad, well-known names in philanthropic circles, brought their total contributions to the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT up to $700 million with their recent $100 million gift to the Institute. The funds are to be paid out over 10 years and will go toward supporting biomedical research focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of “major human diseases,” as well as genome sequencing and chemical biology. When Eli Broad decided to leave the business world to pursue philanthropy full time, he sold his retirement savings company SunAmerica to AIG for close to $20 billion. (Read more about the Broad Foundation's gifts to medical schools).

It should be noted that even though the kings and queens of Wall Street are the largest group of funders toward medical research, it doesn’t meant that they are ones exclusively writing the largest checks. Here’s a look at a few such gifts. 

  • Louis Simpson and his wife Kimberly Querrey recently gave $92 million to support a new 12-story research hub at Northwestern which will provide space for research into neurodegenerative disorders, as well as cancer, heart disease and genetics.
  • Mortimer Zuckerman, cofounder of Boston Properties, which helped propel him into billionaire status (and allowed him the funds to purchase U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic, the New York Daily News), gave $200 million to endow the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. Zuckerman’s gift will also help support interdisciplinary research in neurosciences.
  • Robert and Patricia Kern, who founded a company in 1959 that would go on to become one of the largest independent manufacturers of complete engine-driven generator systems in the world, gave $67 million to the Mayo Clinic’s Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery. The gift will go toward the Clinic’s use of “engineering principles to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and care of patients.” 

Who’s Getting?

Research programs within large hospital and healthcare systems as well as those within major universities rule this giving space. Research programs at smaller institutions and hospitals will find it difficult to peek out from under medical community giants such as Mayo, Sanford-Burnham, University Hospitals, Scripps and the Cleveland Clinic.

On the major university side of things, medical research programs at Ivy League institutions like Harvard, naturally garnered individual donor notice, but not as much notice as state schools. Here are a few examples:

  • Mark Stevens and his wife Mary recently 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."
  • University of Iowa received a $9 million pledge from Francis and Muriel Jeffries toward its glaucoma and pediatric cancer research programs. 
  • West Virginia University received $1 million from Mike Ross for its juvenile diabetes research program.

Medical research programs at what would be considered smaller institutions, such as the Piedmont Newnan Hospital in Newnan, Georgia, tend to receive donations from individuals who are both local to the area and have a personal relationship with the hospital. Those personal relationships generally stem from receiving treatment at the institution or sitting on its board. Incidentally, Piedmont Newnan received a $2 million gift from Reese and Mimsie Lanier toward the development of its Neurosciences and Learning Institute.

What are the Gifts For?

As is true in nearly all areas of individual giving, big donors rarely offer up million-dollar checks without direction or at the very least, guidance. The largest area of medical research funding from individual donors revolves around cancer. Even though cancer research funding receives the most monetary devotion from individual donors in the medical research space, many of the donations are made with specific instructions.

Though donations earmarked for general cancer research may be a bit uncommon, they are among the largest. For example, Nike cofounder Phil Knight offered Oregon Health Sciences Institute a $500 million challenge grant for cancer research. OHSU accepted. We’ll have to wait until the university fulfills its end of the bargain to see how this challenge grant shakes out. Another substantial general cancer research gift came from William Wirtz, who gave Northwestern Memorial $19.5 million to endow its cancer research programs.

When breaking down cancer research into specifics, brain, breast and pediatric cancer research are among the top funding areas. Outside of that, funding for cancer research runs the gamut from immunotherapy research to recruiting talented crews of cancer research.

Moving along the same lines as cancer research, rarely are donations made to support the general medical research program of an institution. Over the five years of grants analyzed here at IP, less than a handful of individual donations were made to benefit institution-wide medical research programs.

The remaining indiviudal donor gifts have a heavy focus on research in pediatrics, neurology and cardiology. Like we said, this individual giving space is extremely mixed, and very specific. Outside of cancer, there aren’t really any heavy funding favorites that pop out. This could be a good thing though, especially for those looking for funding for research that could be considered out of the ordinary. Here’s a quick glimpse of such programs that have benefited from the generosity of individual donors: 

  • Glen and Trish Tullman gave the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation $1 million toward “accelerating the development of an artificial pancreas.”
  • Catherine Ivy gave Mayo $1.2 million earmarked specifically for the research and development of brain tumor vaccines.
  • The Bezos family gave the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center $10 million toward advancing immunotherapy research to treat and cure cancer, including late stage cancers.

How the Gifts Happen

In raising funds for medical research, it’s generally the development executives and department heads that are joining forces to make these big gifts happen. Head investigators and researchers may also join the donor cultivation process to explain to funders the research, its purposes, and ultimate goals. If a donor expresses interest in a particular area of study or has a personal connection with a specific disease or condition, fundraisers may bring in hospital heads and directors. This is especially true when the donations reach eight and nine figures.

What Strings are Attached?

Medical research gifts don’t come with a whole lot of strings attached. Individual funders in this space don’t necessarily want to know the day-to-day details of the research, but they do typically want to be kept abreast of the progress the researchers and investigators are making. 

New research programs, program endowments, building expansions and chairs are almost always named after their respective benefactors. Unlike other health-related giving, medical research isn’t an area in which individuals make big donations specifically for naming rights. As a matter of fact, in this giving space, paying for naming rights is extremely rare.

Worth noting is that many of the donations over $10 million are pledges rather than outright gifts. This isn’t uncommon and pledges of all sizes that are paid out over time don’t typically go beyond a ten-year payment period. 

Insights & Tips

When it comes to individual donations, medical research is one of the most diverse giving spaces. On the one hand, this is positive, because there is no “status quo”, so all research disciplines have a chance of landing a big fish funder. On the other hand, giving tends to be all over the map for research areas unrelated to funding favorites like cancer or well-known and widely publicized medical issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and heart disease. (See IP's Fundraising for Diseases Guide to get a feel of for foundation based funding).

Fundraisers looking for big donations in niche areas aren’t completely shut out. However, the likely individual donors in those lesser-known medical research areas are those that have personal experience with the disease, condition, or their treatments. For instance, if an individual donor has no idea what a glioblastoma multiforme or neuromodulation is, chances are high that they aren’t going to cut a check toward its research. However, there may be one small glimmer of hope here: Many individual donors become involved in some manner with the institutions to which they are making their hefty donations. This gives researchers and development professionals a window of opportunity that outside fundseekers don't have. 

Finally, a relatively common thread among individual donors in this giving space is that they like to see research that is, or promises to be, innovative and maybe even a bit exciting. These ends may seem as though donors are putting pressure on researchers and investigators or expecting major medical research breakthroughs, but such is not the case. Over the years of gifts we’ve analyzed here at IP, we’ve found that individual donors giving money toward medical research expect progress, not perfection.