A single scholarship that grew into a student support program.
A gift of millions that would cover emergency tuition bills.
Each of these gifts is different in scope, size, and source—but each was called “transformational” by the institution that received them.
Transformational giving is a term that comes up often in today’s philanthropic landscape—particularly in 2020, when philanthropist MacKenzie Scott made US$4.2 billion in surprise gifts to organizations across the U.S., including 35 colleges. In 2019, educational philanthropy reached a zenith after 10 years of growth, according to CASE’s Voluntary Support of Education Survey, in no small part because of transformational “megagifts” like Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
But what makes a gift transformational?
Transformational gifts, as defined by the 2001 guide High-Impact Philanthropy, spark exponential impact and have “a unique capacity to alter the programs, perceptions, and future of an organization.” This impact typically takes one of two forms, explains Greg Duyck, principal at WittKieffer who has spent two decades in advancement. A transformational gift can “crystallize a set of ideas” or projects that institutions have been working on under a single umbrella, he says, or “set the institution in a completely new direction. The leadership lays out a vision that aligns with what a donor is hoping to achieve.”
Plus, he adds, this kind of gift can “create a sense of community around that vision.”
Ultimately, what’s transformational depends on an institution’s context and needs. Here’s a look at how four gifts—including Scott’s surprise philanthropy—shaped four very different institutions. Advancement professionals share what made these gifts transformational: how they impacted students, alumni and donor experiences, and staff priorities.