Déjà Vu: Another Higher Ed Mega-Gift Sticks to the Script

Every now and then, we come across a gift in the higher ed space that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. The $50 million gift from James J. Maguire and his wife Frances to Philadelphia's Saint Joseph's University (SJU) is not one of those gifts.

The gift is huge, impactful, and according to President Mark C. Reed of Saint Joseph’s University, "game-changing." It also sticks closely to the larger higher ed script in two key ways. First, it's an example of an increasingly common "top of the pyramid" alumni gift. Second, the gift supports need-based scholarships, a big area for alumni donors as of late.

According to the school, the gift will expand the "Maguire Scholars" scholarship program enabling SJU to attract students from Philadelphia and beyond. "This investment will advance academic excellence and will increase student access through a major infusion of endowed funds for scholarships and financial assistance—top strategic priorities," said Reed.

So how does this gift fit into the larger trends permeating the higher ed space? Let's find out.

Consider the disproportionate impact of such mega-gifts from the "top of the pyramid." As previously noted, a recent study by Marts & Lundy found that "mega-gifts"—those exceeding $10 million—topped $6 billion in total for the first time, continuing a post-recession surge in eight- and nine-figure donations to colleges and universities. On the other hand, middle-of-the-pyramid giving has dropped off, suggesting fundraisers are having a difficult time engaging younger and less affluent alumni.

Then again, most fundraisers lack a financial interest in chasing those younger and less affluent alumni. The same study found that many institutions are directing resources to "major-gift fundraising" and away from annual fund efforts, which can be more expensive per dollar raised.

The net result? A disproportionate reliance on a handful of wealthy donors. Now, one could argue that the ends justify the means, here. But many fundraisers and administrators across higher ed remain concerned. Speaking of the benefits of a diverse donor pool, Yale President Peter Salovey said, "High rates of participation are good for the university financially, and create a sense of psychological commitment by alumni to the university."

Which brings me to the second component of the Maguires' gift. With SJU's undergraduate tuition standing at $43,020, it's another example of mega-donors riding to the rescue as tuition exceeds the rate of inflation.

I've written often that donors haven't been doing enough to compel universities to reign in runaway tuition, so I'll spare you another harangue. (Although if it's a harangue you seek, click here.)

I'll simply say the following: Donors are just like you and me (minus the millions of dollars). At some point, it isn't outlandish to assume their generosity will hit a wall. Will mega-donors be as benevolent in 10 years when tuition at their alma mater rises to, say, $90,000 a year? At what point will they say "enough?"

But that's a problem for another day. Let's shift our focus instead to James and Frances Maguire.

As we've previously detailed, James Maguire made his fortune in the insurance industry, and the couple established the Maguire Foundation in 2000, focusing grantmaking on the Greater Philadelphia area. Since then, the foundation has given more than $80 million in grants to local educational, human service and cultural institutions. 

The Maguires gave $15 million toward Saint Joseph’s expansion campaign in 2005, enabling the purchase of the former Episcopal Academy property, now known as the James J. Maguire ’58 Campus. The Maguires are the largest benefactors to the university to date, with total lifetime giving now reaching $75 million.

Related: Meet James J. Maguire: Dyslexic Insurance Salesman Turned Philadelphia Philanthropist