In 2015, million-dollar giving in the US has rebounded, rising to levels not seen since before 2008. 

Since the recession, million-dollar giving has seen signs of recovery and fluctuations in the number and dollar-value of such gifts, but up to now there has been only a moderate improvement. In 2015, however, both the number and value of gifts increased substantially, with 1,823 donations totaling £19.03bn in 2015, compared to 1,064 donations of $14.11bn the year before. It is notable that all donor types – individuals, foundations and corporations – have contributed to the large increase in the number of gifts and that the percentage breakdown by donor type has not changed.  

The following are some observations about recent developments in US philanthropy. 

Impact of the economy

Impact of the Economy

We know that economic conditions influence giving at the million-dollar level.[1]

For individual donors, for example, this effect means that when the economy worsens (for example, during times of recession, increasing unemployment or decreasing stock market values), individual donors reduce their giving at this level. However, the economy has been improving somewhat steadily in recent years, and we have not seen $1m+ gifts climb to pre-recession levels prior to 2015.

One consideration is that $1m+ gifts take a significant amount of time to cultivate on the part of fundraisers and nonprofits. These gifts, once agreed to, often take more time to put into place. It is also possible that, after the recession, donors began to be more open to solicitations for gifts of this size, and that it has simply taken a few more years for these efforts to come to fruition and show up in the media. Additionally, since the economy has been improving for several years, foundation endowments have had time to build up to a level where major donations are possible.

[1] Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Economic effects on million dollar giving. 2014. Available from:

Donor-advised funds

Donor-advised funds

Across the United States, donor-advised funds are on the rise.[2]

Donor-advised funds are giving vehicles where donors make tax-deductible contributions to a charitable sponsor (for example, a community foundation). Donors then recommend that the sponsor make grants from those funds to charitable recipients. This provides donors with the opportunity to secure tax relief immediately and donate the funds at the pace of their choice, without the burden of creating and managing a private foundation.

Donor-advised funds have existed in some form since the 1930s, primarily sponsored through local community foundations. However, in recent years these funds have grown in number and in asset level. A 2012 study showed that American donors increased their giving to donor-advised funds by over 10% in one year alone, and assets held in these funds are in the tens of billions of dollars.[3]

[2] A Report on Donor-Advised Funds. (2013). Giving USA Spotlight Issue 4, 2012, researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Giving USA Foundation.

[3] Ibid. 

Diversification of structures for philanthropy

Diversification of structures for philanthropy

In recent years, major donors in the US have also adopted new and different organisational structures. 

One notable example of giving announced in 2015 is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan[4]. CZI is notable for its form, a limited liability company rather than a charitable foundation. Given that CZI will eventually benefit from Facebook stock valued at more than $45bn, this is an unprecedented move by a major philanthropist couple who have already shown up in the Million Dollar Donors Report in previous years for their significant giving.

Zuckerberg has explained that the LLC form is more flexible for their charitable goals, although it removes the option for tax relief[5]. By using the LLC structure, CZI can invest in for-profit companies as well as engage in advocacy and policy debates, or lobbying. While this format is unprecedented, Omidyar Network also provides an example of providing both donations to nonprofits as well as investments in for-profit companies. You can read more about Omidyar Network’s approach in this case-study.

This example also illustrates that some major donors are exploring new ways of giving to achieve change, without being restricted by the format of traditional 501(c)(3) organisations. In this case, Chan and Zuckerberg are willing to give up a tax benefit to have more options in how to invest their money to effect change in the causes they care about.

100% for mission

100% for mission

The traditional private foundation is still used by many individuals and families to donate to causes. But what is evident is that foundations are increasingly exploring how they leverage all their assets, including their endowment, to achieve change.

As highlighted in our case-study, the Cordes Foundation provides an example of an organisation using ‘100% for mission’, investing all of its funding towards its mission, with social entrepreneurship and impact investing at its core. The Rockeller Brothers Fund and F.B. Heron Foundation are examples of foundation adopting a similar approach.

Philanthropy, health, and technology

Philanthropy, health, and technology

Another subject of interest in 2015 is the growing desire by philanthropists to invest in technology to target the root problems of society, particularly through health and education.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former mayor of the City of New York Michael Bloomberg, focuses in part on public health and education. Some of Bloomberg’s largest gifts are to health initiatives and investing in higher education to target root problems of societal problems like obesity and gun violence.

Examples abound of philanthropists investing in health, but using more innovative models. The UPS Foundation is supporting a pilot project to deliver medical supplies via drones in Rwanda; this idea is going global, as evidenced from the Drones for Good project in the United Arab Emirates.

Other technological investments, such as Facebook’s project, also aim to use technology to improve the world. is a nonprofit initiative by Facebook and other partners to connect people around the world using the internet. The philanthropic idea behind this initiative is that with access to the internet, people can have access to education, support in building new businesses, learning about health interventions, and more.

Constituent voice

Constituent Voice

In recent years there has been increasing focus on how donors track the results of their work, but what has come to the fore more recently is a focus on capturing constituent voices and the way feedback from the ultimate beneficiary is incorporated.

The Fund for Shared Insight is an example of this development. It is a collaborative effort among funders including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Fund for Shared Insights, which pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy, emerged from a belief that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference if they share learning and are open to what others want to share, including grantees and the people they seek to help.

Spend-down foundations

Spend-down Foundations

The question of spend-down versus perpetual foundations has been an issue for a number of years, but the debate has continued through 2015.

Well-known and influential foundations have taken different approaches. Atlantic Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, are spend-down foundations that will invest all funds and cease operations either by a specific year or within a certain number of years after the deaths of the founders. However, many other key foundations are set up to operate in perpetuity. According to one report, 63% of family foundations plan to give in perpetuity, 12% plan to spend down their assets, and the remaining 25% are undecided.[6]

The decision of whether to spend-down or maintain foundation assets is one for each foundation to make, taking into account its particular circumstances and goals. However, we have seen more criticism in recent years around the large endowments held by higher education institutions.[7] Certain colleges and universities have received increasing scrutiny because tuition costs are rising, but endowments are not being spent down to alleviate the burden on students. This discussion has no doubt intensified because of the current debate about student debt, combined with interest in how major foundations are treating their assets.

[6] Renz, L., & Wolcheck, D. (2009). Perpetuity or limited lifespan: How do family foundations decide? The Foundation Center. Retrieved from




Philanthropy in the US dates back to the country’s colonial period, and was influenced by the Puritan beliefs of its earliest founders.

The first major bequest in US history was in the 17th century from John Harvard to what is now Harvard University. From that time on, the US has been known for its large numbers of associations and other non-profit organisations.

Today, philanthropy in the US is encouraged by a number of factors, including the tax code, as gifts to charitable organisations are usually tax-deductible. The US also has a strong culture of publicity surrounding charitable giving. Whether by individuals, foundations or corporations, such giving is often high-profile and can serve to build the reputation of the donor. Indeed, it is the norm to be open about one’s giving at all levels of the wealth spectrum. Philanthropy is also well documented, for example in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It is important to note that the US is not a welfare state. Compared to countries such as the UK, the government does not provide the same degree of social services. This also significantly influences the scale and nature of philanthropy, and shapes the way in which donors think about their giving relative to the work of government.

Giving by Americans has remained consistent over the past decade as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), at around 2%, though it does fluctuate slightly depending on the state of the economy. While philanthropy in the US has undergone many changes through its history, the sector remains strong and is receiving ever-greater attention. Philanthropy by wealthy individuals and families is widespread; indeed, nearly every high-net-worth household in the US contributes to the non-profit sector.