The fundraising drive by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution is the university’s biggest and believed to be the most ambitious ever undertaken by a university, ahead of one concluded last year by Stanford University in California that raised $6.2 bn.
Harvard unveiled its campaign at an event featuring Bill Gates, who spent three years at the school in the 1970s before dropping out to co-found Microsoft.
“You never say that you are ‘dropping out’ of Harvard. I ‘went on leave’ from Harvard,” he said. “If things hadn’t worked out for my company, Microsoft, I could have come back.”
Gates did not say whether he intended to donate to the ambitious campaign. A spokesman for the billionaire, whose foundation has made several grants to the university, said there was nothing to announce.
The university has already raised $2.8bn from more than 90,000 donors during the pre-launch phase of the campaign, its first fundraising drive in more than a decade, it said. Harvard's investment portfolio is worth about $30.7bn, roughly the size of the annual gross domestic product of the Baltic nation of Latvia.
That endowment shrank 0.05 per cent in the fiscal year ended in 2012, after double-digit gains the previous year, according to the most recent figures from the university.
“The endowment is meant to last forever. ... It enables our faculty to do groundbreaking research,” Vice President for Alumni Affairs & Development, Tamara Rogers, said in a statement.