VSE Reports Record Higher Education Giving (and Some Warning Signs)

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchMarch 4, 2020
2019 VSE Survey

Higher education giving reached another record year of support, totalling $49.6 billion, for the tenth record year in a row according to the Voluntary Support of Education Survey (VSE) from CASE. For 57 years this survey has chronicled private philanthropic support to higher education. Data are self-reported by institutions and provide benchmarking and peer comparisons.

(You can read more about the results here from our friends at CASE.)

Record higher education giving is great, but…

It’s clearly a great time to be working in philanthropy, with significant wealth distribution taking place from numerous generous donors. But before you jump headfirst into celebration, there are a few things to note:

  • This was another record-setting year for higher education support, but the results were mixed by type of institution. Private and public research/doctoral and public baccalaureate institutions were up, and everyone else was flat or down.
  • A single gift, the generous donation by Michael Bloomberg to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University, accounted for a huge part of the overall increase. Without that gift, giving would have remained flat when accounting for inflation. This is still a lot of money directed to higher education, but it’s a bit more complicated than “giving is up.”
  • Individual and alumni giving decreased overall, with alumni cash giving dropping nearly 8 percent.
  • It’s important to note that donor-advised funds and foundation giving, which rose significantly, are counted separately and may make up some of that shift. If you have supporters who are now giving through these growing vehicles, potentially because of the recent tax law changes, you’ll want to be sure to steward them and thank them.
  • Overall alumni participation continues to decline. Less than one-tenth of alumni now give back to their alma mater:
Higher Education Giving: Alumni Participation 2015-29
  • This decline in alumni participation is due to relatively flat overall donor counts, which rose by less than 1 percent on average in the past five years. Alumni of record, however, increased by an average of 19 percent. We have more alumni than ever, and fewer and fewer of them are giving.
  • It’s important to note that the VSE tracks gifts in hand (cash) each year. The record-setting higher education campaigns, which include estate commitments and multi-year pledges, will impact giving down the road.

Declining alumni donor counts are a major cause for concern

I dive deep into this data each year, and I can tell you that the alumni donor count numbers continue to scare me.

Among institutions that reported donor counts in 2018-19, 66 percent had declines in donor count. This has been occurring for a decade, with 68 percent showing a decline since 2010. Since about 80 percent of our big donors have given annually more than once, we need to really think about how we are establishing the alma mater as a key destination for giving.

Let’s talk about increasing donor engagement

Major and leadership donations will continue to be what helps support budgets, build scholarship endowments, and fund big projects. But we need to really be thinking about how we’re cultivating the next generation of loyal donors of all sizes if we plan to be setting records a few decades from now.

That’s an area where RNL can really help. We have partnered with colleges and universities to:

If you’re ready to engage more donors—especially more donors who are more like to give—talk with our fundraising strategists. Set up a time to talk, and we’ll discuss how you can increase donor engagement and excite your constituents about giving.

About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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