The College Donor Digest

America’s Tradition of Grassroots Philanthropy

April 10, 2018 | Joe DeGraff

The tradition of higher education philanthropy is older than the United States itself. Many schools from the 17th century onward were established and funded by wealthy philanthropists with a vision for education. From John Harvard’s donation of his vast library upon his death in 1636 to establish what is now Harvard University, to George Washington’s donation of 100 shares of the James River Company in 1796 (worth $20 million today) to expand what is now Washington and Lee University, it’s often easy to connect the school with the donor. Around the turn of the 20th century, another great wave of industrialist donors, James Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and James Duke, among many others became ‘institutionalized’ by their large gifts.

While it’s no question that these titans of industry fundamentally changed higher education, grassroots donors also played a part in shaping colleges and universities in America. For example, the first college in northern Ohio, Case Western Reserve University (previously known as Western Reserve College), was born from very different origins. Instead of a single benefactor, local farmers and their grassroots contributions communally started what is now a leading research institution. The individual stories of support are as creative as they are fascinating: One famer spent the winter hauling building materials from a local quarry, while another family reportedly pledged an annual gift from their yearly milk and egg profits that went on for over a decade.

Today, aspiring grassroots donors have a plethora of options for realizing philanthropic goals. An option that echoes the community efforts of Case Western are special purpose funds. Special purpose funds pool the gifts of like-minded donors to maximize the power of their collective contribution.

For higher education donors, the Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR) offers a collection of special purpose funds that make grants supporting high quality liberal arts programming. Donations to FAR’s Special Purpose Funds go entirely to new or existing programs that champion high academic standards and civic literacy, and introduce students to a range of intellectual viewpoints.


Further reading: Karl Zinsmeister, The Almanac of American Philanthropy (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2016).


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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.