Higher education philanthropy: many stories and trends

By: Associate Professor Wendy Scaife   |   Director, QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies   |   https://research.qut.edu.au/australian-centre-for-philanthropy-and-nonprofit-studies/

Giving and learning are both about change, innovation, transformation, and more equal opportunities.

Olga Tennison’s recent $45 million bequest funding La Trobe University’s Autism Centre in perpetuity reflects all four qualities. It also underscores more visible philanthropy, and women’s rising influence in giving.

Higher Education (HE) philanthropy has many such fascinating stories and trends. Following Mrs Tennison’s impactful legacy, this short blog explores:

  • giving’s growing role in Australian HE,
  • factors surrounding HE giving to ‘sandstone’ and other universities
  • what the trends suggest for growing future university giving.

Giving’s role now more prominent

Giving Australia’s Philanthropy and Philanthropists survey (Baker et al 2017) pinpointed Education/Research as the second most common grantmaking area (after Social Services). That’s logical, given universities cover everything from health to the environment, housing to natural disasters. Every family/community benefits sometime from university knowledge.

The personal investment in such giving is evident in examples like Joy and Barry Lambert’s $33.7 million gift to the University of Sydney for research into therapeutic Cannabis after it eased their granddaughter’s rare epilepsy.

Australian university leaders/academics now rely more on such external partnerships. Stretched public funding and larger scale research/ curriculum visions both are driving this change. Australia is on the US path where in 2013, one-third of leading universities’ research budgets were philanthropic investments (Murray 2013).

This partnership trajectory is clear in the 2021 CASE Support of Education Survey, Australia, and New Zealand, (34 universities). CASE (Krishnaswamy 2021) reported a 16% lift in new funding from 2018. Of this, philanthropic contributions of $759 million rose nearly a third from 2019. Half went to research programs and the rest to scholarships/bursaries, capital projects/infrastructure, and minor unrestricted funding. While the pandemic challenged givers, COVID-19 also sparked urgent research risk capital, and increased student financial distress.


Factors around major giving to Higher Education

Major giving is now more conspicuous in HE donations. US research (Osili 2017) found one-third of that nation’s ‘million dollar plus’ donations went to HE with the remainder splintered across the Arts, Healthcare, the Environment, and others.

Australian universities reported 123 ‘million dollar plus’ pledges in the 2021 CASE survey, up 21% from 2019. This growth coincides with an upsurge of Australian universities in the world rankings, (about impact across teaching, research/research influence, industry partnership income and international perspective). Australia is equal third in the world for the number of institutions in the global top 200, against many counterparts with longstanding major endowments, reputations and giving sources (Henwood 2021).

Which universities are winning the big dollars? Osili’s US study (2019) found location, presidential tenure, board giving, rankings, and investments in faculty and staff distinguished those attracting transformational philanthropy. Those who invested in staff and focused on communication and long-term relationships were also more likely to attract ‘million dollar plus’ gifts.

In Australia, Yezdani (2020) points out that beyond the Big Five (University of Melbourne, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Western Australia, and University of Queensland), who receive 73% of Higher Education donations, other universities average less than 1% of the balance. He suggests Australian philanthropy is blinkered as many more than the five produce outstanding results and most disadvantaged students are not Big Five enrolees.

La Trobe’s Tennison gift stands out, therefore.

Osili suggests universities not in the ‘major giving league’ need to establish a shared university-wide strategic vision, deep relationships with key alumni and non-alumni, and an inspiring case for philanthropic support. These were effective in sandstone university major campaigns in recent years.

Giving Australia (McGregor-Lowndes et al 2017) highlights educational attainment as a giving indicator – good news for universities embracing alumni to their Alma Mater (picturesquely meaning ‘nourishing mother’ in Latin). Non-G08 universities embraced their alumni decades later than older universities and may have smaller graduate populations and fewer contact details.

Growing future university giving

Nonetheless, we are seeing more universities growing Australian giving, noting:


  • recognising that women are more likely to give and to give a higher percentage of their taxable income
  • putting into practice university’s beliefs around diversity and inclusion to embrace giving from Australia’s many cultures and beyond
  • realising Millennials’ distrust institutions more than preceding generations and engage differently (e.g., through impact investing and upscaling projects)

Constituency focus

  • engaging the mid-tier supporter who may be tomorrow’s major giver
  • involving alumni and others more in the life of the university. Not all volunteers will or should be expected to give, but Giving Australia showed that people who give and volunteer (in HE as guest lecturers, advocates, mentors, industry connectors etc) donate nearly twice as much as people who only give financially

Giving options

  • resourcing Gifts in Wills so people know about this opportunity to make a difference. Abdy (2019) forecasts 2040 bequest income as 2.3 times higher than today in real terms. People with post-graduate qualifications being more likely to include a Gift in their Will (McGregor-Lowndes et al).
  • offering the now expected online donation including mobile device giving
  • capturing small to medium gifts and larger matching gifts through Giving Days (e.g., QUT, University of Newcastle, University of the Sunshine Coast) that build the ongoing culture of philanthropy in the university community and beyond

US historian Peter Dobkin Hall said, “No single force is more responsible for the emergence of the modern university in America than giving by individuals and foundations” (1992:409). Many believe more is possible and emerging in Australia.



Abdy, M. (2019) Australian gifts in Wills 2040. Legacy Foresight/Include A Charity. 
Baker, C., Barraket, J., Elmes, A., Williamson, A., Scaife, W., & Crittall, M. (2017) Philanthropy and philanthropists: Giving Australia 2016. Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.
Hall, P. D. (1992) Inventing the Nonprofit Sector and Other Essays on Philanthropy, Voluntarism, and Nonprofit Organizations. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Henwood, B. (2021) Australian universities are outpacing their global counterparts UNSW Sydney Newsroom. 
Krishnaswamy, D. (2021) CASE Support of Education Survey, Australia and New Zealand. 
McGregor-Lowndes, M. Crittall, M., Conroy, D., Keast, R., Baker, C., Barraket, J. and Scaife, W. (2017) Individual giving and volunteering. Australian Government Department of Social Services, ACPNS, CSI, CCPA.
Murray, Fiona. 2013. “Evaluating the Role of Science Philanthropy in American Research Universities.” Innovation Policy and the Economy 13 (1): 23–60.
Osili, U. (2019) Key issues facing higher education philanthropy, American Council on Education and the TIAA Institute. 
Yezdani, O. (2020) Five universities get the bulk of philanthropic donations The Conversation 26 February.

Apr. 28, 2022

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