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Donations to Penn increased 389% from 2018.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn recorded 372 foreign donations in 2019, a 389% increase from 2018, which Penn attributed to the addition of an international development department to The Power of Penn, the University’s most ambitious fundraising campaign. 

The international development campaign ran for the first time in the fiscal year 2019, consisting of an international tour with Penn President Amy Gutmann to speak to Penn alumni, students, and parents, according to Senior Managing Director of Penn’s International Development Department Tina Cowan. 


The Daily Pennsylvanian Analytics Staff analyzed 3,809 total foreign donations from January 2014 to June 2020 through data acquired from the Postsecondary Education Participation System, which is part of the Office of Federal Student Aid's management information system of all organizations that administer student financial aid. The dataset may not comprehensively cover all donations because institutions do not need to report donations of less than $250,000 to the federal government. Of the donations analyzed, 625 were to the University of Pennsylvania. The other 3,184 donations were to other Ivy League universities.  

Foreign donations by country

The University received the largest sum of foreign donations from China, at $77,457,323, followed by England, at $57,410,522. Donation amounts by region are correlated to the number of alumni and parent families from the region, Cowan wrote.

“We have many more students and alumni in China than England, and we have more students from these regions than from other parts of the world,” she wrote.

On The Power of Penn website, the Frequently Asked Questions page includes specific information about how taxpayers from the United Kingdom and Hong Kong can make gifts to Penn. 

According to a letter drafted by three House of Representatives Republicans, the University had received about $21,187,333 from China in the 37 months prior to Penn announcing the formation of the Penn Biden Center in 2018 and $72,274,675 from China in the 39 months following its launch. The dataset examined by the DP Analytics Staff found $15,681,213 from China during the first timeframe, although some of the donations do not specify their amount.

“The Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity. In fact, the University has never solicited any gifts for the Center," University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in a previous statement to the DP. "Since its inception in 2017, there have been three unsolicited gifts, from two donors, which combined [to a total of] $1,100. Both donors are Americans." 

Despite the higher donation amounts from China in comparison to other countries, Political Science professor Avery Goldstein said that the correlation does not necessarily imply a causation. 

Goldstein said a large number of donations do not go to institutions where China would want to exert its influence to forward its own goals. For example, during Goldstein's tenure as the inaugural director of Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China from 2012 to 2019, the center never received funding from China. Goldstein said it is more likely that the donations are going to the general fund for undergraduate scholarships at Penn. 

A majority of foreign donations from China come in the form of monetary gifts, both in terms of donation count and monetary value. Cowan wrote that the difference between monetary gifts and contracts is that, while a gift consists of giving some monetary amount to the University, contracts include agreements with companies that may include providing education to their employees, as well as faculty research grants.

In their letter, members of Congress expressed concerns that the Chinese Communist Party has used strategic investments to indoctrinate American college students, which Goldstein denied.

“Importantly, on the output side of things, in no way has any Penn programming and teaching been shaped by Chinese preferences,” Goldstein said. “In fact, we are often very critical of Chinese policies, and we run things exactly how we would want to.” 

Thirty-five percent of the money donated from China is in the form of anonymous donations, and state donations account for 23% of the total donation amount. For the purpose of the analysis, state donations are defined as donations by Chinese state-owned companies. The rest of the money is from private donations.

Goldstein and Political Science professor Michael Jones-Correa both disputed the existence of any risk of bias due to the increase in Chinese donations. Goldstein added that the increase can also be attributed to a growing Chinese middle class and a larger Penn alumni donor base. 

Donations to the Ivy League

Penn ranks fourth among the Ivy League universities for average monthly donation amount received, falling behind Cornell, Harvard, and Yale. Cornell received the most in average monthly donations at $18,168,137, while Brown receives the least at $1,201,335 during the approximately six-year period of data collection.

Jones-Correa said the difference in donation sums between institutions could be partially attributed to how aggressive the university is in seeking donations and the specialization of the school. The donations can often be a function of the specialization of the school, which would tend to lean towards schools with a heavier science and agriculture bent, he said. This could be why Cornell, a STEM-focused university, receives higher levels of donations than Brown University, Jones-Correa said.

Donations over time

Foreign donations to Penn increased continuously from 2014 to 2019, spiking in June 2019 with a monthly total of over $28 million. 

There is a cyclical nature to donations across each year, which Cowan attributed to fundraising on a fiscal year basis, which runs from July 1 to June 30. 

Cowan wrote that the end of the fiscal year motivates some donors to make an annual gift in June, which coincides with the spike in donations during June 2019. Cowan added that June 2019 was the end of the first public year of the Power of Penn campaign, which also contributed to the spike.

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