Looking at the largest higher-education and grantmaker endowments in America

Feb 22, 2021

Of the top 50 overall, colleges and universities are more than half. Very few, if any, of either type of the huge funds are clearly controlled by conservatives.

Of the 50 largest higher-education and grantmaker endowments in America, as measured by total assets and reported in their publicly available data for 2018, 28 were those of institutions of higher education and 22 were grantmakers. Of the 22 grantmakers, 17 were private foundations, four were providers of donor-advised funds (DAFs), and one was a community foundation.

As shown in this downloadable Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, “Top 50 higher-education and grantmaker endowments, 2018,” they collectively totaled approximately $597.8 billion. Of this amount, the 28 higher-ed ones were together worth about $340.9 billion (or 57.0%), and the 22 grantmaker ones summed roughly $257.0 billion (43.0%). Of this grantmakers’ amount, the private foundations were $184.3 billion (30.8% of the overall total) and the DAF providers were $64.6 billion (10.8% of the overall total).

The largest higher-education endowment in 2018 was Harvard University’s (No. 2 overall, at approximately $38.3 billion), followed by the University of Texas system (No. 4, at $30.9 billion), Yale University (No. 5, $29.4 billion), Stanford University (No. 6, $26.5 billion), and Princeton University (No. 7, $25.9 billion).

While there is more-recent data regarding higher-education endowments, from the annual National Association of College and University Business Officers-TIAA survey, amounts from the 2018 survey are cited here to allow for a fairer comparison with grantmaker endowments—the most-recent publicly accessible information about which is, in almost all cases, from tax forms covering ’18.

Acknowledging the challenges of any attempted ideological categorization of such a large institution, no specific college or university in the U.S. that could clearly be considered conservative—other than perhaps Texas A&M University (No. 12)—had an endowment large enough to make the top 50 in ’18.

The largest grantmaking-foundation endowment on the list is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s (No. 1, $47.9 billion), followed by the Lilly Endowment (No. 10, $15.1 billion), the J. Paul Getty Trust (No. $13.4 billion), the Ford Foundation (No. 14, $13.1 billion), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (No. 17, $11.1 billion).

Again acknowledging the difficulty of trying to categorize them ideologically, no explicitly conservative philanthropy—arguably other than Lilly and maybe the Walton Family Foundation (No. 43)—had a top-50 endowment in ’18.

The overall top 10 included two DAF providers—the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund (No. 3, $31.1 billion) and the Schwab Charitable Fund (No. 9, $15.3 billion).

1 comment

  1. I expect the lack of conservative foundations in the top tier to be even more pronounced as liberal/progressive tech funders create and expand their foundations and grantmaking programs. Jeff Bezos has recently endowed a $10 billion environmental grantmaker. However, this lack of extra large conservative grantmakers, doesn’t mean that wise , conservative donors with still generous resources can’t play a valuable roles in their communities or issue areas. I would suggest conservatives donors are needed more than ever to foster a stronger civil society , respectful debate and understanding and build opportunity for all.

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