Graduates asked to give back

  • Education
  • Sunday, 26 Jan 2003


EVEN before the British education secretary Charles Clarke releases his long-awaited paper on university funding, one of his priorities is already clear: British universities must develop a US-style “endowment culture”. 

On the website of the UK's Department for Education and Skills, the education secretary has posted the provocative question: “Should alumni be encouraged to give more?” We know his answer is going to be “yes”.  

At a time of heated debate over financial support for education in the UK, the one thing everybody can agree on is that universities ought to raise more money from donors.  

University principals are keen on fundraising because it reduces their dependence on government funds. The government supports it for the same reason, and also because fundraising campaigns tend to target those who have benefited from higher education. Left-wingers like it because the burden falls most heavily on the wealthy. 

British universities have been raising money since the early 1980s, with Scottish institutions such as Aberdeen leading the way. Oxford raised the bar with an extraordinary fundraising drive in the late 80s and early 90s, when the university raised pounds sterling 340 million (RM2.1 bil ) in six years. But it wasn't until 2000, when the British finance minister Gordon Brown liberalised the tax treatment of charitable gifts, that many institutions began to take fundraising seriously. 

Their efforts are beginning to pay dividends. Oxford brought in pounds sterling 65 million (RM403 mil) in new gifts last year. Aberdeen is embarked on an ambitious ten-year campaign and has raised pounds sterling 47 million (RM291.4 mil) since 1999. Edinburgh raised pounds sterling nine million (RM55.8 mil) last year - and, perhaps more importantly, managed to get money out of almost 5,000 former students. 

Some are now hoping to create a new culture of charitable giving. Edinburgh has launched a pounds sterling 12 million (RM78.4 mil) campaign for a new medical centre, but according to Catrin Tilley, director of the development and alumni office, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  

“The idea is that we have a really concentrated effort at building philanthropy so that we create an atmosphere where it's much easier to raise funds,” she says. “We want to lever up the giving over a longer period of time.” 

Although British universities are now the most effective fundraisers in Europe, they lag well behind the Americans. In the US, large private universities routinely set fundraising targets of more than US dollars one billion (RM3.8 bil) - and hit them.  

Smaller colleges achieve remarkable rates of participation, with some extracting money from more than half their alumni every year. According to Karen Wright, a research associate at the London School of Economics' Centre for Civil Society, Americans give more money to education than to medical research, animal charities, or international aid. 

Not surprisingly, then, British institutions are showing a keen interest in American methods. University principals are poring over US alumni magazines and packing their development officers across the Atlantic for training programmes. Many are fired with the zeal of the newly-converted. So, what lessons are the most successful fundraisers preaching? 

The first is simple. Universities must keep in touch with their alumni - particularly their American alumni. Graduates are more likely to open their wallets if they feel part of the university community. This means letters must be sent out, glossy magazines created, and reunions organised. Wealthy universities can think about setting up an office in America.  

Oxford has 12 staff in New York, and pulls in 37 per cent of its donations from the US. 

Then there's a more tricky lesson: universities should avoid telling potential donors that they need money. “The word ‘need’ is banned in Oxford,” says Mike Smithson, director of the Oxford University Development Programme. “Fundraising on the basis of need is like trying to get a loan from the bank manager on the grounds that you're poor.” 

Instead, Smithson explains, universities ought to give donors a positive reason to give. If they must make their alumni feel guilty, they should talk about the importance of returning old favours. American universities drill this message into their students as soon as they matriculate. You can afford to come here (the university says) because of the generosity of previous students, and we expect you to continue the tradition after you leave. 

As the Americans know, universities are unlike other charities. Donors give to them not out of a desire to support the destitute but because they want to enhance the future of people like themselves.  

John Saunders, the head of Aston Business School, in the UK, explains that alumni can enhance the value of their own degree by supporting their alma mater. “When Aston rises, the people who were here 20 years ago benefit,” he says. “So they actually have a vested interest in helping the school develop.” 

The third secret of successful fundraisers is that they are nice to rich people. British development officers tend to be coy about the amount of time they spend courting wealthy donors, but their American counterparts have no such reservations. 

John Willey, vice-president of development and university relations at Ohio Northern University, is frank about the special treatment given to large donors. “When people achieve a certain wealth and standing in life, they expect to be treated more personally,” he says. “If you're going to ask someone for US dollars 100,000 (RM380,000) as opposed to US dollars 100 (RM380), you'd better go and see them.” 

Then, says Willey, you must try and convince big donors to remove the strings from their gifts.  

“People who achieve genuine wealth have a great sense of themselves,” he explains. “Frequently they will say, ‘I want to do this’, and it doesn't match up with what the institution needs. So the discussion we have with them is fairly complicated. If you can't work through the issues, you might walk away and leave US dollars 100 million (RM380 mil) on the table.” 

If an institution wants to pull in the big money, though, it has to learn the hardest lesson of all: cash doesn't come without access. People who give to universities will want to rub shoulders with the people at the top - perhaps even try to exert some influence over policy. 

Universities that are serious about fundraising are likely to make their senior staff available to potential donors. “Vice- chancellors (principals) and deans have got to play a major role, and be in on the close,” says John Saunders. “In America, these people's job is fundraising, and it's the vice-dean who runs the school. It changes the balance of the institution.” 

Not surprisingly, many people regard fundraising with distaste. Some gifts - particularly gifts to big-name institutions - are plainly attempts to buy a cleaner public image; one development officer refers to this process as “ethical laundering”. Every year sees at least one “cash for places” scandal, with universities or colleges accused of giving preferential treatment to donors' children.  

Joanna Motion, European director of the Council for the Advancement of Support for Education, a fundraisers' professional body, reckons that such scandals “flush out a level of discomfort with university fundraising”. 

University fundraisers in the UK, however, are most anxious about the forthcoming changes to UK higher education funding. Some (including Motion) fear that a graduate tax might have a chilling effect on fundraising, because it will draw money from the very people most likely to give to the universities. 

But fundraisers remain as cheerful and optimistic as ever. To them, no problem is insurmountable - not even a sea change in university funding. And they would like you to know that, however much money they raise this year, they'll do better next year.– Guardian Newspapers Limited.  

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