What Can You Learn From the Return of Big Philanthropy in 2013?

Grant writers may have jerked awake last week and spilled coffee on their shirts when the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that charitable gifts of $100 million or more totaled 3.4 billion Americos in the year just ended. Philanthropy in the United States made a Robert Downey Jr.-grade comeback in 2013, following a prolonged slump largely attributed to the Great Recession. 

Remarkably, nearly one-third of that total came in the form of an individual donation. Facebook CEO and hoodie enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan waited until practically the last minute to break the 2013 record for an individual donation, giving 18 million Facebook shares to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. At current market valuation, their gift is worth just under $1 billion. It’s also the first-ever gift of that size by donors under the age of 30. 

The analysis of the year’s top gifts included big donations for colleges and universities. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $350 million to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Other academic beneficiaries of the year’s philanthropic windfall include Yale, Stanford, Yeshiva University of New York, and the University of California. 

Nike chairman Philip Knight and his wife Penelope pledged $500 million in matching funds to the Oregon Health and Science University Foundation for cancer research, a perennially popular giving space for large donations. The university has two years to match those funds in order to receive the full gift.

In 2012, Warren Buffett threw off the curve with gifts of $1 billion each to three foundations operated by his children; discounting those big, Buffett-y numbers yields just $2 billion in philanthropic donations for 2012. The trend is promising, but big philanthropy is still off of its 2007 high of $4.1 billion. Can you even remember what life was like before the recession? Weren’t there a lot more Escalades parked across multiple spaces back then?

The 2013 philanthropic picture gets even brighter when you factor in total gifts of $1 million or more, totaling nearly $9.6 billion, compared with $6.1 billion in 2012. 

What’s this mean in 2014? Universities should be sharpening their fundraising skills and and staffing up for a continuing rise in funding for higher education. Note that two of the biggest donations in 2013 went to business schools— one to Columbia Business School from investor Ronald Perelman; another to the University of Michigan School of Business from real-estate developer Stephen Ross. 

Donors in 2013 were interested increasing college enrollment, endowing financial aid programs, and fostering interdisciplinary studies. Also buildings. Lots of nice new buildings. Be sure to check out Inside Philanthropy's Trends and Tips for higher education grants.

Grantseekers involved in cancer and stem cell research should be prepping their letters of inquiry to medical foundations this year— two of the largest gifts in 2013 went to those funding areas. It just so happens that IP offers guides for disease research, scientific research, and medical schools, among many others.