Alan Ryan

June 11, 2004

Alumni bashes such as the Princeton P-rade should be emulated in the UK because friend-raising leads to fundraising.

Every year around this time, the Princeton P-rade takes place. This is the culmination of a week of reunions during which hordes of alumni descend on Princeton University to celebrate their love of their alma mater, meet old friends, attend the lectures and seminars laid on for their benefit and consume tanker loads of beer. If anything epitomises the difference between American and British views of fundraising, the P-rade is it.

It is what it sounds like, a parade. Alumni march, stroll, shuffle and jog to a variety of musical accompaniments for a mile and a half through the campus; it is led by a centenarian or two in golf carts - these are the members (the passage of time means that it is usually one member) of the oldest graduating classes. Their successors follow, and the class that will graduate at commencement three days later brings up the rear. It is a social document of some interest: the elderly are upper-class Wasp men, the young are a rainbow coalition of race, gender and class; American social history displays itself through the ranks.

These are the people who keep the university not just afloat but swimming in an ocean of prosperity. Year after year, 60 per cent of the alumni contribute to the £20 million in annual giving that puts the icing on the cake. The cake itself is substantially provided by an endowment of £5 billion - the same as Oxford and Cambridge universities' endowments put together, devoted to a university only 40 per cent the size of either of them; but quite a lot of that £5 billion was raised in the late 1990s, when the university went out to raise half a billion pounds and came home with three-quarters of a billion.

So, why is it all so different? One very obvious difference is that the US tax system, while not intrinsically much more generous to charitable giving, is vastly simpler. You give whatever you give, and knock the amount off the income you declare to the authorities. No Gift Aid forms, no giving 22 per cent one way and getting 18 per cent back another; just a slice off your taxable income. Gordon Brown, the UK's Chancellor, could institute the change in five minutes, but simplicity is foreign to his instincts. Tax evasion is policed in the US as it would be here - by auditing the taxpayer.

Another difference, obvious to Americans and less so to us, is the role of religion in American life. Even if millions of Americans tell dreadful fibs about how often they go to church, the fact remains that a third are regular churchgoers; and many of the churches they attend take membership very seriously. It is not uncommon for quite poor people to tithe themselves for the benefit of their church, and that means 10 per cent of their income goes in charitable giving. The habit sticks. People who get used to giving go on giving.

A third difference is that American academics are more aware of financial realities. None would make snooty noises about not being in trade. Whether they worked at a public or a private university, a swift reminder of who paid the bills would wing its way across the desk if they did. Of course, there as here, most academics have no taste for fundraising, and even fewer have much aptitude for it. There are fundraising geniuses among us, but most of us regard them with the same uncomprehending awe as great chess players, who also see openings that would never occur to us. And there as here, 95 per cent of academics are not involved in fundraising; their role, quite rightly, is to do their jobs well enough to give donors some reason to carry on donating.

The other large difference is more puzzling. American entrepreneurs are much more inclined than their British counter-parts to celebrate making a killing by handing out large gifts to institutions - from orchestras to museums to universities. Such generosity exists in Britain - the Weston Foundation and the Wolfson Foundation give more than most American foundations - but the celebratory gift is less frequent. And because entrepreneurs are driven by the competitive spirit, a massive gift from one person provokes gifts in emulation from others. "How much is so-and-so giving?" is the question that fundraisers hear incessantly; if the answer's a fiver, you get a fiver; if it's 5 million, you're in luck.

So, bring in the beer tankers, hire the jazz bands, put your alumni in fancy dress - and lay on your best lecturers and seminar-givers to showcase what you do - and, above all, get used to the idea that friend-raising comes before fundraising. Partying your way to prosperity isn't the worst of prospects.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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