When it comes to charitable giving at a mega level, Boston was a magnet for generosity last year.
Of the 10 largest single donations to US nonprofits in 2014, three went to Boston-area institutions: a $650 million gift to the Broad Institute, the biomedical research center in Cambridge staffed by scientists from Harvard and MIT, and two gifts totaling $500 million to Harvard University.
The Broad gift, by businessman Ted Stanley for research on the genetics of psychiatric disorders, also has the distinction of being the second-highest donation on the 2014 list, compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Its beneficiaries said it cements Boston’s reputation as an epicenter of the life sciences industry.
“For life sciences, Boston is the place,” said Dr. Steven Hyman, director of the Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, founded in 2007 by Stanley and his wife. “You can’t get off a plane at Logan without stepping on life scientists, just like you couldn’t get off a plane in San Jose without stepping on people developing apps.”
The gifts to Harvard are also historic. One — $350 million to the School of Public Health from the Newton-based Morningside Foundation, the family charity of Hong Kong billionaires Gerald and Ronnie Chan, to help fight global health threats – is the biggest gift in Harvard’s history. The other — $150 million from hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin to support Harvard’s financial aid program – is the largest gift Harvard College has ever received.
“It’s certainly a sign that the capital campaign is roaring and people are responding to it in a big way,” Palmer said.
On the surface, she added, it may seem unsurprising that Harvard, a perennial favorite of philanthropists, would be the recipient of so much largesse. A common reaction to last year’s gusher of charitable dollars to the school is to say, “Oh, of course Harvard gets it,” Palmer said. “But I don’t think it’s so ‘of course.’ I think they’re interesting gifts.”
They’re interesting, in her view, because “they went to very traditional institutions,” but not to fund typical higher education ambitions, such as boosting endowments and expanding campuses.
“I mean, public health is a cause that usually doesn’t get that much attention, and financial aid gifts usually aren’t that popular, either,” Palmer said. “But there’s so much concern now about elitism and social inequality, and in some ways both of these gifts are aimed at dealing with that.”
Similarly, she added, the gift to the Broad provides generous financial support to a perpetually underfunded area of research: mental health.
A Harvard spokeswoman, Tania deLuzuriaga, was unable to locate anyone to comment. But in a possible indication of Harvard’s sensitivity about its recent windfall of charitable gifts and the ongoing capital campaign, she noted in an e-mail that “a lot of folks have asked why the world’s richest university needs to raise more money” and included a link to a video that “outlines how our endowment works and how we hope it will serve the university for generations to come.”
Asked how he reacted to learning about the $650 million gift to the Broad, Hyman said:
“This is almost too much of a caricature of Jewish guilt, but when I learned what Ted Stanley had in mind, I was overwhelmed with happiness for something under one second — and then I felt an intense weight of responsibility to deliver. And it’s the latter that’s the emotion that I feel the most. But maybe I’m just very neurotic!”
Another philanthropic trend reflected in last year’s biggest gifts is a desire by many deep-pocketed donors to “make a really big infusion into a specific area to make a difference,” Palmer said.
“People actually want to accomplish something with their gift,” and they often believe giant donations are more likely to do that than a series of smaller ones. The Boston-area donations for mental health research, college financial aid, and public health “are things that obviously have great value to the rest of society.”
Also fueling charitable giving: more donations by multimillionaires, not just billionaires, and increased giving by wealthy people who are relatively young, rather than elderly people who are giving away their riches near the end of their lives.
The top 10 US charitable gifts in 2014 totaled $3.3 billion, a decrease from the $3.4 billion in 2013, but significantly more than during the recent financial crisis, when the annual totals hovered around $2.5 billion.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy tracks only gifts that have been made public, not anonymous ones, so Palmer acknowledged that some large donations may have been omitted. But she said she’s reasonably confident that few, if any, other gifts of similar size could have been made last year without public notice.