Generosity has no minimum giving level. It can be a $15 million donation, like Christine E. Lynn’s gift to the new university center. Or it can be a $15 donation stuffed into an envelope, signed “anonymous.”
To Lynn, all gifts are acts of great generosity, and they all make a difference. Modest gifts, in fact, make up the highest percentage of donations to the annual fund: Almost 80 percent are less than $500.
“People like to give to people,” said Sherry Henry, associate director of annual giving. “They see the students, they meet President Ross, they know the faculty, and they want to be part of that. It feels good to see the faces of the people your gift impacts.”
In a 2016 study, The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that 53 percent of donors at any level make gifts only when they know their support is making a real difference.
Annual gifts below $500 allow Lynn to respond to immediate needs and award scholarships for students, the greatest good for any school.
In the last three years, the average gift to Lynn’s annual fund has more than tripled, now just above $394. This reflects a change in national giving patterns, too. According to a study of tax returns spanning 2006–2012, The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that the wealthiest Americans (those who earn $200,000 or more) have reduced the share of income they donate by 4.6 percent. On the other hand, middle- and lower-income Americans have increased their share of income donated by 4.5 percent.
Dr. Lisa Miller, director of annual programs, is not surprised by this trend. She believes middle- and lower-income Americans give a higher percentage of their incomes because they have benefited personally at some point from the work of nonprofits, perhaps from a scholarship.
“They realize that someone helped them and they are truly paying it forward,” said Miller, who holds a doctorate in organizational leadership and is an expert on the behavior of giving.
Lynn is fortunate to have a vibrant mix of donors, those who give smaller gifts and major donors who come through for big projects like new buildings and endowments. Annual gifts below $500 are bread-and-butter donations for Lynn. They allow the university to respond to immediate needs, fund travel for research and competition and, of course, award scholarships for students, the greatest good for any school.
“Major donors make a significant difference with one gift,” Miller said, “but often they are done after a year or two. Annual fund donors, though, give every year and sometimes more than once a year.”
Receiving gifts great and small does more than balance the university’s portfolio.
“It creates a beautiful community of supporters,” Henry said, “to have people of all income levels giving what they can to a cause they believe in."