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Higher Education Institutions: Trends & Analysis from Giving USA 2021

Giving USA 2021: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for 2020, the annual estimates of charitable giving for 2020 by Giving USA Foundation, found that giving reached more than $471 billion—with education reaching $71.34 billion in total contributions—the highest totals in history for both.

Key trends in giving to education in 2020 included:

  • Giving from individuals—the largest source, totaling 69% of all 2020 contributions—increased from 2019. The increase was tied largely to the continued outsized impact of megagifts and giving to donor-advised funds (DAFs). Other giving sources were foundations (19%), bequests (9%), and corporations (4%). Giving USA does not track giving by source specifically to education, which includes higher and secondary education institutions and organizations supporting student success. However, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) reported that 2020 fiscal year giving included 22.3% by alumni and 17.4% by non-alumni (totaling 39.7% by individuals), 33.2% by corporations, 13.6% by other—which includes DAFs—and 13.4% by corporations. Individuals influence many sources of giving to education through family foundations, DAFs, bequest gifts, and family-owned businesses.
  • Education received 15%, or $71.34 billion, of all contributions made in 2020. Out of ten subsectors, this level of support placed education only behind religion and 1% ahead of human services.
  • Giving to education increased by an estimated 9.0% in 2020 (7.7% when adjusted for inflation). Giving has grown 21.2% in just three fiscal years, from 2018 to 2020—and has a five-year growth trend exceeding the average of all organizations.
  • Giving to COVID-19 relief and racial justice is estimated at $4.087 billion, according to calculations by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. This is substantially more than any other giving event on record and may not fully reflect alternate forms of giving to these causes, such as pledges and GoFundMe support.


1.  Major donor support remained significant: In 2020, $2.8 billion in support was made in mega-gifts, pandemic relief giving, and racial justice giving.

  • Mackenzie Scott’s transformational giving had a significant impact to 42 higher education institutions and three scholarship funds that received $800 million.
  • Other mega-gifts were given to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and community colleges, and many universities recorded their largest gifts ever in 2020.
  • Fifty-three universities were engaged in billion-dollar campaigns in 2020, including 17 that closed and 35 that were opened or in progress in 2020.
  • In a Voluntary Support for Education (VSE) survey by CASE, giving from other organizations grew more than any other category, at 7%. DAFs represented three-fourths of all support in this category.

2.  Instability challenged the higher education fundraising environment:

  • Fundraising revenue declined at more than 50% of institutions in the last half of 2020 compared to 2019. One study found that a quarter dropped 30% or more, while about one-third grew support.
  • Many institutions had enrollment challenges. Enrollment dropped 2.5%, including a 13.1% drop in freshmen enrollment—particularly in public two-year institutions.
  • Spending remained constant overall, in part due to increased draws on endowment at some institutions, despite declines in average endowment returns.
  • The number of high-risk institutions at risk of closing in the next six years will increase 47% due to pandemic-related impacts, according to one study.

3.  Response to increased pandemic-related student need and racial injustice: Increased urgency led donors to give generously and fundraisers to direct more attention to these causes.

4.  Alumni giving continues to decline: The average alumni two-year giving rate from 2017-2019 was 8% for studied institutions. Fewer alumni are giving, and a persistent decline in alumni giving has been found in multiple studies. However, community college alumni may give at higher rates than previously understood, according to CASE; tracking challenges and inconsistent definitions of alumni make the rate more difficult to monitor and assess.


JGA recommends the following strategies for higher education institutions to grow philanthropy.

  1. Keep engaging donors: Continue to apply the best of lessons learned while engaging donors during the pandemic. Focus on stewarding new and returning 2020 donors—your best candidates for future gifts. And, continue to cultivate and provide strong stewardship to major and lead gift prospects. Adapt fundraising metrics and look for ways to track diverse engagement activities.
  2. Articulate your institutional vision and share how your alumni are changing the world. Good storytelling is essential. Connect audiences to real students, alumni, and faculty, to highlight the impact of your institution. Showcase how donors have risen to meet challenges and student needs—including issues of access, justice, or equity. Ensure your message platform, across all communication channels, inspires donors through a variety of compelling stories.
  3. Diversify strategies: Develop or expand your planned giving program and the opportunity for donors to make blended gifts. Understand the role of donor-advised funds (DAFs) as a means of giving from individual donors. Continue developing new and creative ways to connect with donors, host events, and engage current and new people in supporting your mission.
  4. Emphasize online giving: Invest in making online giving, including recurring giving, an easy, rewarding experience—and promote it clearly and frequently.
  5. Data: Track and share data to show the ROI of your mission. Measure, monitor, and adjust fundraising strategies based on data collected, and look to stronger tracking of DAF giving to consider if more alumni are giving to DAFs and how that impacts your overall alumni giving rate. Also, utilize giving, capacity, and engagement data to identify the highest capacity prospects for strategic cultivation efforts.

You may download a free copy of the Giving USA 2021 highlights or order your full copy at

Giving USA 2021: The Annual Report on Giving for 2020 is published by Giving USA Foundation, a public service initiative of The Giving Institute, and is the longest running and most comprehensive report on charitable giving in America. Giving USA is researched and created by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. JGA is a member of The Giving Institute