The Harvard Crimson

‘No One is Doing More’: Harvard President Alan Garber Looks To Reverse Donor Revolt

As the University prepares for a long-term downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is leading the charge to woo back disillusioned donors.
As Harvard sees a downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 has been tasked with winning back donors.By Natalie Y. Zhang
As Harvard sees a downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 has been tasked with winning back donors.
As Harvard sees a downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 has been tasked with winning back donors.

‘No One is Doing More’: Harvard President Alan Garber Looks To Reverse Donor Revolt

As the University prepares for a long-term downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is leading the charge to woo back disillusioned donors.
By Emma H. Haidar and Tilly R. Robinson

Harvard’s initial response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel infuriated many of the University’s major donors, but during the first weeks of the donor revolt, senior leadership remained optimistic that it could quickly win them back.

But after seven months of fallout, senior administrators and members of Harvard’s governing boards concede that the impact of the current drop in donations will likely be felt for years to come.

As the University prepares for a long-term downturn in giving, interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is leading the charge to woo back disillusioned donors.

Under the direction of Garber and Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development Brian K. Lee, gift officers and other senior administrators have been “working like dogs” to reverse the backlash, one donor said. Meanwhile, Harvard’s development office has shifted its outreach strategy as it speaks with donors amid the ongoing campus controversy.

Instead of focusing their time on recruiting new pledges, development officers have gone into listening mode, trying to salvage relationships with the longtime donors who have expressed deep concern with the University’s leadership in recent months, according to three people familiar with the office’s efforts.

Lee acknowledged in a statement that “this has been a challenging year for Harvard and for many who care deeply about Harvard.”

“We are constantly engaging with our alumni and donors, hearing their feedback and sharing updates from campus — that is true this year, as it has always been,” Lee wrote. “They do not always agree with us, and they do not always agree with each other, and they do not speak with one voice — but they are important members of our university community.”

‘Zero Chance That I Will Donate’

Some of Harvard’s biggest donors have publicly paused donations to the University in the months since October, saying future gifts are conditional on the administration’s handling of antisemitism on campus.

The Wexner Foundation and Israeli billionaires Idan and Batia Ofer cut ties with the Harvard Kennedy School just weeks after Oct. 7. Leonard V. Blavatnik, who had previously donated $270 million to Harvard, including $200 million to Harvard Medical School in 2018, decided to pause donations in December.

Harvard megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, who has donated upwards of $500 million, followed suit in January.

While Griffin left open the possibility for future contributions, he has not shifted his stance yet. In a May 11 interview with the Financial Times, Griffin urged Harvard to “embrace Western values” and listen to donors.

“Many wealthy donors have valuable insight into transformation and improvement strategies that are clearly needed at this time,” he said.

A spokesperson for Griffin declined to comment on whether he had met with Garber recently or reconsidered his pause on donations. A spokesperson for Blavatnik did not respond to a request for comment on whether he is still pausing contributions.

Harvard megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin '89 halted his givings in January.
Harvard megadonor Kenneth C. Griffin '89 halted his givings in January. By Courtesy of Kenneth C. Griffin

While some donors have made their concerns public, many more have privately told development officers and senior Harvard administrators that they either wanted to pause donations or were considering doing so.

One Kennedy School donor previously pledged to donate roughly $15 million over a 15-year period but has now stopped less than halfway through the pledge period, according to a person familiar with the gift.

Another prominent donor cited a perceived double standard in the way the administration has handled antisemitism compared to other forms of hate speech in their decision to halt future giving.

“We are most definitely stopping any new grants, any new giving,” the donor said. “We hope we can come back, but we’ll need to see a change in attitude and behavior at the University to continue to be supportive.”

One Harvard College alum — who previously planned to donate an amount “well into the seven figures” — said he would not contribute over concerns that Harvard had not done enough to condemn Hamas and support Jewish affiliates on campus.

“Unless there’s a very clear moral stand by the organization, that is not kind of politicking and ‘two sides of the issue,’ there is zero chance that I will donate,” he said.

In December, estimates of FAS annual giving showed at least a 16 percent drop in donations from the prior year, according to a person familiar with the situation.

At a closed-door town hall in April, Penny S. Pritzker ’81, Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — acknowledged that the Corporation – Harvard’s highest governing body– was “acutely aware of the fundraising challenges we are facing at this time.”

“We are doing scenario planning,” Pritzker said, according to an attendee’s notes. “We are not sitting around just hoping things are going to be OK.”

Garber Hits the Road

As interim president, Garber is also now the University’s interim chief fundraiser — a role that he has fully embraced since former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation in January.

Less than three months after assuming office, Garber flew to London to meet with donors and alumni, speaking to a room of over 200 at an event co-hosted by the Harvard Club of the United Kingdom and the Harvard Alumni Association.

Victoria W.K. Leung ’91, president of the Harvard Club of the UK, wrote in a March statement that Garber “addressed the challenges head-on” during his meeting with alumni.

“I think many were pleasantly surprised by the candour,” she added.

After the UK trip, Garber and several HAA members visited Miami. In Florida, Garber met with alumni and donors for small-group and one-on-one conversations. While traveling, Garber acknowledged that donations were down after Harvard’s tumultuous fall semester.

Garber also visited the nation’s capital in mid-April, where he addressed a crowd of 500 alumni at an event co-sponsored by the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C.

Peter J. Solomon ’60, who served as the Chairman of the Friends of the Center for Jewish Studies for 45 years, said he felt Garber’s administration has been more receptive to alumni concerns, compared to Gay’s administration last fall.

“I reached out to the senior levels of Harvard, and I did not find them forthcoming frankly, at the period,” Solomon said. “And I didn’t reach out to them as a donor. I reached out to them as somebody who has been involved in almost every level at Harvard, except on the Corporation, over 60 years.”

Solomon and other donors said they’ve had a quicker line to top administrators since the start of Garber’s tenure.

Solomon said that he had spoken with Garber in the last few weeks, including when Garber attended a dinner at the Faculty Club held to mark Solomon’s retirement as chairman, saying he was “very impressed” by Garber’s leadership so far.

Garber has also been “meeting furiously” with donors in private conversations and phone calls, a person with knowledge of Harvard’s fundraising efforts said.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 is pictured in his office in a February interview.
Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber '76 is pictured in his office in a February interview. By Marina Qu

At a faculty town hall in April, Corporation member Shirley M. Tilghman touted Garber as Harvard’s “biggest strength in managing fundraising,” according to meeting notes shared with The Crimson.

“He has been on the road and on the phone speaking to very angry donors and beginning to lower the temperature,” Tilghman said. “No one is doing more than Alan Garber to address this issue and he’s been doing it very effectively.”

Outgoing Harvard Treasurer Paul J. Finnegan ’75 echoed Tilghman in a May 16 interview, emphasizing Garber’s role in mitigating donor fallout.

“The presence of Alan Garber has been just extraordinary in terms of changing the narrative,” Finnegan said. “He’s reached out to donors and alums, internationally and explained what his plans are to deal with various challenges on campus.”

“Longer term, I personally feel that people will come to appreciate what Alan and the team have done, and are doing, to help Harvard navigate the challenges it faces today,” Finnegan added.

The Development Office Presses Pause

Behind the scenes, Harvard has been adjusting its strategy.

One person who is involved in Harvard’s fundraising efforts said that development staff have told alumni fundraisers to be sensitive and understanding — and not to push too hard. Development staff have framed this year as a time to listen to concerns, rather than aggressively recruit new contributions.

That, the person said, stands in contrast to Harvard’s usual fundraising message: to flatter donors by asking them for more money than they can actually give.

Meanwhile, Harvard’s administrators and development office have taken a more prominent role in fundraising, making themselves available to donors, scheduling webinars and one-on-one calls, and offering to meet donors for coffee when they travel.

Even so, development staff have put some efforts on hold as well.

One prominent donor said a development officer said in a conversation that the current situation was their “worst nightmare,” adding that it made it hard for them to do their job — and that the University had recognized that fact by putting fundraising efforts on pause.

Other Harvard administrators have also been on the move. FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra has traveled to New York City, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, where she met with alumni.

FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra speaks in a February interview at University Hall.
FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra speaks in a February interview at University Hall. By Julian J. Giordano

In February, Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh and Dean of Students Thomas Dunne met with alumni volunteers at annual summits in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, where they were joined by Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana.

Since then, Claybaugh and Dunne have continued to meet with donors for Zoom conversations and other events.

Stephen W. Baird ’74, a longtime Harvard donor, said he was a “little surprised” when Khurana flew to see him in the fall in Chicago, because he didn’t consider himself a “huge megadonor.”

“I told him he didn’t need to come. There was no reason for him to come, but he came to talk to me because they were reaching out to a lot of people,” Baird said.

In their messaging to donors, Harvard administrators have highlighted initiatives the University launched to address concerns over its campus climate — including the working groups on open inquiry and institutional voice, which have received particular emphasis, and the presidential task forces on combating antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias.

They’ve also tried to refocus on the work that continues in Harvard’s libraries, labs, and classrooms. Hoekstra said in a March interview that the FAS’ civil discourse initiative has drawn particular enthusiasm.

“I think this is really important work, to be able to tell our Harvard story, and all the exciting research and scholarship and education that we’re doing on campus, that we’ve always done and continue to do,” Hoekstra said. “That’s an important message to share with our alumni and to help strengthen our relationships.”

Taking the Long View

Claudine Gay’s elevation to the presidency in Sept. also brought whispers of a potential capital campaign during her tenure. But her abrupt resignation has put a rest to any rumors for the foreseeable future.

While it is largely expected that the University will launch a campaign in anticipation of its 400th anniversary, that milestone is still over a decade away. The University’s last campaign, which spanned five years, ended in 2018 and raised a record $9.6 billion dollars.

However, it is unlikely that the University will want to launch a campaign without confidence that it can secure major multi-million dollar gifts from loyal donors or a permanent president in Massachusetts Hall who would be able to see the campaign through from start to finish.

Still, Harvard is increasingly dependent on philanthropy to support its initiatives.

Between fiscal year 1998 and fiscal year 2023, the proportion of Harvard’s annual revenue that comes from current-use gifts rose from 6 percent to 8 percent, and the proportion that comes from endowment distributions rose from 23 percent to 37 percent.

Laura Coughlin, a senior strategy manager at Harvard’s Office of Financial Strategy and Planning, told the Harvard Graduate Council in a Nov. presentation that the University is “more philanthropy dependent, which does present a risk when you think about the volatility of the market, or a downturn in retention.”

Even though gifts make up a relatively small fraction of annual revenue at each of Harvard’s schools, they play an outsize role in supporting discretionary spending and allowing flexible budgets.

In a November presentation to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Scott Jordan — the school’s dean of administration and finance — told faculty that current-use gifts were “important to the FAS” because they were largely unrestricted and available for use by the dean.

University Hall, home to many of Harvard's administrative offices, is situated within the Yard.
University Hall, home to many of Harvard's administrative offices, is situated within the Yard. By Frank S. Zhou

Three people involved in Harvard’s fundraising efforts said they thought donors who fund specific institutes or research projects are less likely to cut ties over broader concerns about Harvard’s campus climate or handling of pro-Palestine protest. Contributions to unrestricted funds, though, might take a larger hit.

Along with doubts from long-time donors, Harvard also faces the uphill challenge of convincing younger alumni to donate, according to four people with knowledge of Harvard’s fundraising efforts.

Younger classes often have lower participation rates in annual giving. In 2023, Harvard suspended its annual Senior Gift Fund, which had been long plagued by low participation.

While multiple people with knowledge of Harvard’s fundraising said that philanthropy has dropped over the past seven months, the overall numbers remain in flux. Contributions typically spike in Dec., due to tax filing considerations, and in May, when alumni flock back to Cambridge for reunion events.

Some alumni fundraisers said they’ve had success in their efforts to raise money amongst classmates despite the turmoil of the past year.

Paul H. Barry, who helps encourage alumni philanthropy at the Harvard Business School, wrote in an emailed statement that “fundraising at HBS continues to be robust.”

Barry added that he plans to continue giving and will encourage his classmates to do the same.

Meanwhile, giving to the Harvard Kennedy School Fund — which collects alumni donations — is almost half a million dollars higher in fiscal year 2024 than it was at this point in fiscal year 2023, although the fund is extremely small in comparison to the Harvard College Fund.

That may indicate a divide among Harvard’s alumni base — between contributors with an undeterred loyalty to Harvard and their own fond memories, and those whose frustration over recent events has driven them away from the University until they see change.

The slowdown in giving is not immediately an existential threat to Harvard, a school with the largest endowment in American higher education and an unparalleled brand name.

Still, the University currently faces strong political headwinds amid a congressional investigation into antisemitism on campus. If lawmakers attempt to limit Harvard’s federal funding, it will feel the loss of trust from many of the University’s most loyal backers all the more acutely.

“Institutions like Harvard are easier to tear down than they are to build,” Solomon said.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

Central AdministrationCommencementFundraisingAlumniUniversity FinancesFacultyAlan GarberHopi HoekstraCommencement 2024