Back to School: Women Donors and Higher Education

higher education
Roberta “Bertie” Buffett Elliott, who donated $100 million to fund the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University, recently visited the campus. (Photo credit: Buffett Institute for Global Studies)

Institutions of higher learning are major recipients of philanthropic gifts, and received donations totaling nearly $47 billion in 2018 (a more than seven percent increase from the year previous). This rise is fueled in part by an increasingly wealthy, educated and philanthropically active group of women who are willing to make big ticket donations to colleges and universities.

Major female donors to higher education have included Roberta “Bertie” Buffett Elliott, who in 2015 gave her alma mater Northwestern University $100 million to fund the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies. The gift from Elliott, a member of Northwestern’s class of 1954, represents the single largest gift in the Evanston, Illinois school’s history.

That’s a nice sum, but for an even bigger higher ed donation, one needs to go back to 1998 when Mildred Topp Othmer willed $125 million to both the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the Polytechnical Institute of New York University. Othmer also gave $100 million to Long Island College Hospital, and $60 million to Planned Parenthood of New York.

A number of women donors are earmarking their higher-ed donations for areas directly affecting women and girls. Stacey Nicholas, who has a master’s in electrical engineering from UCLA,  earlier this year gave five million dollars to the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, specifically the UCLA Women in Engineering program (WE@UCLA). The gift supports female engineering and computer science students at UCLA. While women comprise only 27 percent of engineering students at the school,  that is up from 20 percent in 2008, and women represented one-third of the 2018 freshman class.

WE@UCLA includes professional development, internships, mentorships, team building exercises, community outreach and other means to increase young women’s representation and success in the engineering field. In 2014, Nicholas, through her Opus Foundation, gave $9.5 million to the University of California-Irvine’s Samueli School of Engineering; the gift included $5 million for outreach to K-12 students and the broader community to increase the ranks of underrepresented students in engineering. Women outnumber men among post-secondary students, but remain in the minority in STEM fields at most schools.

Another recent gift targeting university women came from Iowa philanthropist Suzie Glazer Burt, who gave five million dollars to the Drake University women’s basketball program. The donation to women’s hoops at the Des Moines, Iowa school represents the largest non-capital gift to a women’s basketball program in NCAA history.

Five million dollars seems to be the magic number; Cape Cod philanthropist Maureen Wilkens also donated this sum in 2019, her to Cape Cod Community College (CCCC) in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. While the gift was not targeted at females, 68 percent of CCCC students are women ages 20-34, and CCCC is an open-enrollment institution with many low-income students.

A 2018 article in Inside Higher Ed (“New Era for Women as Donors”) highlighted the growth in female donors to higher-ed, and the efforts made by colleges and universities to woo high net worth women. Dartmouth College’s three billion dollar “The Call to Lead” campaign, which includes a target of getting 100 women to make gifts of one million dollars or more, is one such effort. The more modest “Centennial Circle of Dartmouth Alumnae” is for donors of $100,000 or more, and is seeking to increases its membership to 250.

Higher-ed institutions are targeting women donors not just with university-wide entreaties for cash, but also with gender specific appeals for funds to improve women’s representation, opportunities and well-being; to fund academic research of particular relevance to women; hire more female faculty and administration; and increase women’s representation on university boards.

The increase in female donors is attributable to a number of factors, including a rise in high-income women who are people of means themselves, and an increasing appetite among women to have greater input in the philanthropic giving they engage in as part of a couple or family.

One of the pioneers in women’s philanthropy and higher education is Martha Taylor of the University of Wisconsin. She co-founded the University of Wisconsin’s Women’s Philanthropy Council which was the first co-ed university major gifts organization of women philanthropists. Taylor recognized that men were the overwhelming targets of college development offices, and high value female donors were being ignored. Women’s money, and input, were definitely worth pursuing, and cultivating women donors has borne fruit for Women’s Philanthropy Council (WPC) and similar organizations nationwide. The WPC has more than 60 current members who have given roughly $10 million to UW‒Madison and have served on numerous UW advisory boards and councils.


Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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