Small Schools Give Ivy League Run for the Money in Donations

(Bloomberg) -- If you’re Harvard or Stanford, a $50 million donation is nice, though not uncommon. But for schools like tiny Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, it can change everything.

Smaller institutions typically have struggled to compete for multimillion-dollar gifts, out-muscled by schools with bigger endowments and better name recognition. But a booming stock market and broader trends in philanthropy are helping to spread the wealth.

Small Schools Give Ivy League Run for the Money in Donations

Oglethorpe, with an endowment of just $33.5 million and 1,250 students, announced Friday that it received $50 million -- the largest gift in its 182-year history -- from alumnus Q. William Hammack to help establish a business school. Hammack, the former head of a Georgia contracting company, was motivated by the ability to have a far-reaching impact, said university President Lawrence Schall.

“We’ve talked about the difference that a gift like this could make,” Schall said. “I do think it will encourage others to jump on board in ways they haven’t before.”

Oglethorpe isn’t alone. Kenyon College, an Ohio liberal arts school with about 1,650 students, received a record $75 million gift earlier this month from an anonymous donor.

“It makes a statement about the value of this college in the lives of our alumni and families,” said Heidi McCrory, Kenyon’s vice president for college relations. “The benefit for all of us when we see these kinds of gifts is it plants a seed in other donors’ minds.”

Small Schools Give Ivy League Run for the Money in Donations

While a smaller endowment or lack of name recognition might be viewed as negatives, they can still attract benefactors who want to have a bigger impact or give somewhere where they have a personal connection, administrators and donors say. It also helps that the gifts are tax-deductible for both contributors and recipients.

Miles Beacom, who contributed with his wife and a business associate to a $30 million donation for Dakota State University, said he was driven in part by how quickly his donation could be put to use by his alma mater, which will use the money to develop a cybersecurity program.

“Something like this will just shoot them far into the future and it will go much further than it would any place else,” said Beacom, a South Dakota banking executive.

Even schools with larger enrollments but less prolific fundraising than their Ivy League peers are benefiting. Within the past year, Iowa State University received two gifts totaling $195 million and the University of California, Irvine, hauled in $200 million for its college of health sciences.

“Anybody can play at this level,” said Scott Nichols, senior vice president of development at Boston University, which recently announced a record $115 million donation, most of it to support research. “If you look at almost any institution, at the top of the prospect list are people – a few people – who can do this kind of stuff.”

Robert Weissman, who gave $36.3 million to his alma mater Babson College in Massachusetts and has helped lead fundraising for the school, said there are “limited windows” for soliciting donors.

“The smart finance committee and administration of any college should be looking at, is now the time to ask?” said Weissman, co-founder of Teaneck, New Jersey-based Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. “If you thought that the market was high or at least higher than it’s been for some time and that your donors have not been touched with a specific program asking for money or some other commitment, now’s a pretty good time.”