Number and value

The number of million dollar donations fell to a new low of 1,408, while the total value fell 17% year-on-year to just under $14bn, as the US economic recovery struggled to maintain momentum in 2012. But despite this decline, there is cause for optimism.

The largest donation in the US in 2012 came from Warren Buffett, who gave $1.52bn to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Other research on million dollar giving has shown that gifts from individuals are particularly impacted by economic downturns.[1] The low point in 2009 and 2010 coincides with the financial crisis and ensuing recession in 2008/09 and its lingering effects. 2011 saw a brief upturn in donations and dollars given, but 2012 shows another decline. This indicates that the economy has not been as quick to recover, and that this prolonged economic uncertainty has been mirrored by a lack of commitment to philanthropy at the million dollar level.

[1] A Decade of Million-Dollar Gifts’, in collaboration with CCS, researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Average size of million dollar donations

The increase in size of the average (mean) gift to $9.9m in 2012 from $9.3m in 2011 helped to mitigate the effect of the drop in the number of million dollar donations. The median value (the middle value when all are placed in ascending order) also increased, and to a record high of $2.5m.

As in previous years, the gift given most frequently (mode) remained at $1m. The increase in the mean and median of million dollar donations is an encouraging sign. While fewer donations are being given at this level, those who give are giving higher amounts. The mean in 2012 was the highest it has been since 2007, and the median is the highest since even before 2007. One possibility is that the donors who have stopped or lowered their giving during the economic downturn were those more likely to give smaller amounts, and the largest donors have aimed to increase their giving in order to maintain giving levels needed for certain social services to be provided. 



In 2012


In 2011



In 2012


In 2011



In 2012


In 2011

Value of million dollar donations

The split of donations by value in 2012 showed a similar pattern to the previous year. In 2012, 40% of million dollar donations were worth between $1m and $2m compared to 42% a year earlier, and 42% were valued between $2m and $10m compared to 39% in 2011.

The majority of million dollar gifts in 2012 were worth at least $2m, including 18% of gifts worth $10m or more. There were also 21 gifts worth at least $100m.

It is encouraging to see a consistent trend over the last two years, even in a time of economic instability. We might expect that during a time of economic difficulty, more donors would give gifts of exactly $1m or just above that amount. However, a large portion of million dollar gifts are continuing to be given at higher levels – above $2m, $10m and even higher. 


Source of million dollar donations

Million dollar gifts in the US generally come from three types of donor: individuals, foundations, and corporations (within which we include corporate foundations). 

Although the majority of gifts in 2012 (52%) came from foundations, individuals donated almost half the value of gifts. The history of million dollar giving in the US shows a similar trend – foundations give more gifts; individuals give more money.

There are several reasons for this. It is likely that foundations try to spread out their giving, providing smaller gifts to a larger number of non-profit organisations. Individuals may try to give a smaller numbers of gifts that are worth a higher amount. This trend may also be because individuals make large, one-time gifts to endow their foundations, which then disburse the money in smaller grants over time.

Some individual and institutional (ie, corporation, foundation or charitable trust) donors made more than one charitable donation of $1m or more during each year. A total of 889 different million dollar donors were identified in 2012, including 34 anonymous donors. The vast majority of these donors (769 donors, or 87% of these unique donors) gave just one million dollar gift. However, 120 donors gave more than one million dollar gift.

In 2012, the largest number of gifts given by one donor was 77. This donor, a foundation, gave to a variety of non-profit organisations, particularly international and overseas organisations. The second-largest number of gifts given by one donor was 32. These gifts also came from a foundation and went to many organisations, particularly public and societal benefit non-profits for community development.

In recent years, the fraction of gifts given by foundations has increased. This is consistent with research showing that during times of economic difficulty, foundations are likely to maintain or even increase their giving compared to individual donors.[1] Even though the total number of gifts decreased from 2011 to 2012, gifts by foundations remained at roughly the same level.

The number of gifts from individual donors decreased from 2011 to 2012, but remained a steady fraction of the total value of million dollar gifts. The average gift size by individual donors increased in 2012, which helped to mitigate the reduction in the number of gifts they gave.




52% of total value in 2012




35% of total value in 2012




13% of total value in 2012

[1]‘ A Decade of Million-Dollar Gifts’, in collaboration with CCS, researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Location of million dollar donations

Million dollar gifts in the US came from donors in every region of the country, and were given to non-profit organisations in every region as well as overseas.

Donors in the West gave 27% of the gifts and 30% of the value, indicating that these donors also gave slightly larger gifts on average. Donors in the South gave 24% of the gifts and 18% of the value, indicating the opposite. These figures have not fluctuated significantly over the long term. 

Donors in the South gave 24% of the gifts and 18% of the value, indicating the opposite. These figures have not fluctuated significantly over the long term. 



26%  Northeast

25%  Midwest

18%  South

30%  West

1%  Unknown

In terms of regions receiving million dollar gifts, the largest number of gifts went to non-profit organisations located in the South (29%), followed by the Northeast (24%).

Non-profit organisations in the West received the largest share of the value of these gifts (31%), although this figure was influenced by the largest gift identified in 2012, which was given to a foundation located there. 



22%  Northeast

14%  Midwest

20% South

31%  West

10%  Unknown

3%  Overseas

These figures demonstrate that million dollar gifts are distributed relatively evenly across geographic regions of the US. This should encourage non-profits in cities and states outside of major metropolitan areas, as million dollar donations go to every state in the country.

Recipients of million dollar donations

A total of 986 organisations received million dollar gifts in 2012.[1] These organisations include operating non-profit organisations as well as charitable trusts and foundations.

The vast majority of these organisations received only one donation worth $1m or more (816 non-profits, or 83% of all unique organisations). A handful of organisations received more than one gift, with the biggest beneficiary receiving 16 separate gifts – most of them earmarked for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

For some non-profit organisations, a particular event may make a huge difference to their number of million dollar gifts. In 2012, many gifts were earmarked for disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast coast of the US. During such times of disaster, certain non-profit organisations such as the American Red Cross are most recognisable. After any disaster, we see similar upturns in giving for disaster relief, which impacts the number of million dollar gifts key non-profits receive.


total recipients

in 2012

[1] These numbers exclude 63 cases in 2012 and 74 cases in 2011 in which a gift was split between a number of organisations to share, or where a recipient non-profit organisation could not be identified.

Distribution of million dollar donations

Higher education was by far the greatest beneficiary of million dollar donations. It received 604 separate gifts totalling $5.62bn, which made up 40% of the total value donated.

The public and societal benefit subsector and foundations received the next largest totals, with each receiving 11% of the total value of gifts given in 2012.

Some subsectors received a high number of gifts, yet made up a small percentage of the total value of gifts, indicating that the gifts to these non-profit organisations tended to be relatively small. For example, education organisations (besides universities) received 98 gifts but these gifts averaged $4.2m and made up just 3% of the total value of gifts. Likewise, human services organisations received 93 gifts, averaging $3m, which made up 2% of the total value of gifts.

The findings come as no surprise: the US has a long tradition of giving to colleges and universities. Unlike countries, where there is more statutory funding, higher education in the US receives relatively less government support, leading institutions to rely more heavily on philanthropy. 






1408 gifts of $1m+

($16.77bn in 2011)


Higher Education


604 gifts of $1m+

($8bn in 2011)




14 gifts of $1m+

($1.68bn in 2011)


Public & societal benefit


127 gifts of $1m+

($755m in 2011)




58 gifts of $1m+

($598m in 2011)


Arts, culture & humanities


124 gifts of $1m+

($1.86bn in 2011)




122 gifts of $1m+

($1.34bn in 2011)


International [1]


54 gifts of $1m+

($199m in 2011)


Education (not universities)


98 gifts of $1m+

($841m in 2011)


Overseas [2]


58 gifts of $1m+

($526m in 2011)


Environment & animals


37 gifts of $1m+

($264m in 2011)


Human services


93 gifts of $1m+

($592m in 2011)




11 gifts of $1m+

($75.2m in 2011)




8 gifts of $1m+

($38.7m in 2011)

Higher education has been the primary focus of million dollar donations in the US for as long as these donations of $1m or more have been tracked.

Another subsector of note is public and societal benefit, which of all subsectors increased its share of total gift dollars the most from 2011 to 2012. This is due to a high volume of gifts, particularly to community foundations (community foundations are included within the public and societal benefit subsector, as explained in the methodology). One major example of this trend is Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, worth $498 million. This gift alone moved the public and societal benefit subsector to a more prominent place on the list.

[1] ‘International’ refers to non-profit organisations based in the US that operate primarily outside the US.

[2] ‘Overseas’ refers to non-profit organisations headquartered outside the US, regardless of the purpose of the gift; eg, donations to schools and hospitals in Europe.