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The Secrets of ‘Million-Dollar Ready’ Colleges

Less than a third of American colleges managed to attract individual donations of $1-million or more from 2000 to 2012, leaving the other two-thirds to wonder: What is their secret?

According to a study released on Tuesday, a number of factors influence an institution’s chances of landing a big gift, including presidential tenure, the student experience, and the philanthropic example that its board members set.

Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the fund-raising consulting company Johnson Grossnickle and Associates collaborated on a report on the study, ”Million Dollar Ready: Assessing the Institutional Factors That Lead to Transformational Gifts.” Rather than looking at what causes donors to give, the researchers tried to identify what characteristics make an institution more likely to attract major gifts—to be “million-dollar ready.”

The researchers analyzed 1,449 institutions that had received past gifts of $1-million or above, then correlated their findings with information available in several higher-education databases. In the second phase of the research, they performed case studies of three universities that have enjoyed success in attracting million-dollar gifts: Arizona State University, DePauw University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Here are some of the characteristics that are common among institutions that attract major gifts:

  • A great student experience: Social clubs and other activities sparked students’ love for their institutions and caused them to give more as alumni so that current students could enjoy the same experience.
  • A long-serving president: Institutions with presidents in office since 2000 were more likely to have received more million-dollar donations.
  • Generous trustees: Board members who set a philanthropic example spurred others to give.
  • Institutional maturity: Colleges founded before 1900 received more million-dollar donations and a greater total value of donations than those founded after that year.
  • A strong national ranking: Colleges that were highly ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” list in 2000 received 61 percent more million-dollar gifts and enjoyed a 156-percent increase in the total value of those gifts compared with other colleges.
  • A high percentage of tenured professors: Institutions with a higher proportion of tenured faculty members and higher employee expenses attracted more million-dollar gifts and a greater total value of gifts.
  • Wealth: Institutions with larger endowments received a larger total value of gifts; government funding positively corresponded with both the number and total value of million-dollar gifts.
  • Location, location, location: Rural colleges received 11 percent fewer million-dollar gifts than institutions elsewhere; colleges in the South and the West fared better than those in the Northeast.
  • Growth matters: Colleges that increased enrollments by 1,000 saw an average increase of 1 percent in the number of million-dollar gifts and 2 percent in the total value of gifts.
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