Even with the launch of multiple public campaigns aimed at raising mental health awareness, individual gifts toward mental illness still lags significantly behind other areas of health-related giving. A recent study by the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy demonstrated that the more fundraisers a health institution employs, the more money they will raise.

Here at IP, we have reviewed major mental health-related 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, which institutions are getting the money and what strings are attached to how those major donation dollars are spent.

(For a look at foundation-based grants in mental health, check out Fundraising for Mental Health)

Who’s Giving?

There is no particular type of donor giving toward mental health-related causes. Individuals making large donations in this giving space include anyone from horticulturists to hedge fund managers to professional athletes.

Wisconsin native Will Radler recently gave the AIDS Resource Center in Milwaukee a $1 million gift, allowing the ARC to add one full-time psychiatrist to its staff for at least three years. Prior to Radler’s gift, the ARC had one psychiatrist availble for only 10 hours per week. Radler’s mother suffered from depression throughout her life, and of the gift, he stated, “If you don’t have a healthy mind, you’re not going to have a healthy body... It works hand in hand. Everything we do: taking medication, taking your medication at the right time in the right order, doing this daily, day in and day out. If you don’t have a healthy mind, you’re not going to do that.” Will Radler made his fortune by developing the hybrid rose known as the “Knock Out.” His original version as well as subsequent versions have sold close to 100 million plants and counting. 

In one of the largest recent mental health-related gifts, Steve and Alexandra Cohen gave NYU Langone Medical Center $17 million to establish the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Veterans Center for the Study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, referred to more simply as the Cohen Center. The Cohen’s millions will “support biomarker research necessary to improve diagnoses of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury in veterans.”

Steve Cohen amassed his wealth as the founder of hedge fund management company SAC Capital Advisors. The reasons behind the nine-figure gift likely stem from the fact that Cohen serves as co-chair of the Veterans Advisory Board at the Robin Hood Foundation. Additionally, his father served in the US Marines. Read Steven A. Cohen's IP Profile to learn more about his giving philosophy. 

Detroit Tigers pitcher and Cy Young award-winner Justin Verlander is another example of the varied individuals in this giving space. He recently gave $1 million to two organizations, Give an Hour and The Mission Continues. Both organizations offer PTSD and TBI care and treatment for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. JV’s million dollar gift will support vets and their families in Detroit as well as in Verlander’s home areas of Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia.

Giving toward veterans' causes is a common thread in individual giving in mental health, but not so much that we feel comfortable calling it a prevailing trend. Even with the recent increase in mental health awareness, individual giving toward mental illness has been tapering off significantly since 2011.

Who’s Getting?

Smaller organizations don't stand in the shadows of health care giants when it comes to individual funding for mental health. With the exception of a few large hospitals such as NYU Langone and University Hospitals Health Systems, individual gifts toward mental health concerns tend to lean toward the smaller health systems, programs and treatment centers. Here’s a look at some recent donations: 

  • Charles and Charlotte Fowler gifted $17 million to University Hospitals Health Systems, one of the few large health systems that got a large individual donation. The gift will go in part toward supporting the social and emotional needs of young adult cancer patients.
  • Illinois Teen Institute in Springfield, Illinois received $1.1 million from Larry Goodman in support of its youth drug prevention program. This gift is a bit different in that it works toward the prevention of addiction.
  • Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care in Tavares, Florida, received a $1 million gift from Alfred and Vera Reetz toward the support of pet therapy programs, grief counseling and veteran’s mental health programs. 

The mental health giving space may be limited when compared to other areas of health-related giving, but giving is pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to health centers large and small.

What are the Gifts For?

Individual giving in mental health is as varied as the personalities of the donors writing the big checks and making the monster commitments. Even though individual funders seem to be giving less for the time being, this giving space is expanding. For instance, a few years ago, giving toward mental health issues was largely focused on Alzheimer’s— by which we mean nearly all individual gifts. Now, the funding field has expanded to include other mental health issues such as PTSD, psychological services for HIV patients and women’s mental health, in addition to continued high levels of funding for Alzheimer's. 

How the Gifts Happen

Mental health fundraising is typically a concerted effort by the development executives and the heads of mental health departments and programs. Hospital and board heads tend to get involved if the gift is particularly large, such as Steve and Alexandria Cohen’s $17 million gift to NYU Langone.

In some cases, individual donors make the gift without any prompting. In such cases, donors decisions are largely based on personal or professional relationships with the institution, or a personal experience with a specific mental illness or condition.

What Strings are Attached?

Individual gifts toward mental health related causes come with very few strings attached. If a large donation establishes a program or goes toward new construction or the expansion of an existing building, those structures will likely bear the name of the donor. The same applies to wing additions or expansions at hospitals and health centers. (Read more about individual giving to hospitals and health centers).  

Insights & Tips

Bringing in mental health donations from individual funders is definitely a harder sell than in other areas of health care fundraising. There simply isn’t enough public awareness, or sometimes acceptance, of those suffering from mental illness. What’s more, some conditions— such as PTSD in soldiers returning from combat zones— tend to be more silent than spoken aloud.

Though public awareness is building, it really is up to the development officers and fundraisers to make the individual donors aware of the importance of acknowledging and treating mental illness in the same manner as any other medical condition. When an individual donor hasn’t had any personal experiences with mental illness, it makes for an even harder sell. Nearly all of the recent donors have had some type of experience with mental illnesses, whether it is their own or a close friend or family member's.

Finally, mental health concerns aren’t as universal as, for example, the need for a new emergency room or an additional hospital wing to accommodate more patients. In this individual donor space, education, information sharing and creating a sense of urgency are key to landing those $1 million plus donors.