'They can kick us hard, but they also hold out a helping hand'

May 5, 2006

When Cambridge University was deciding how its 800th anniversary could best be used not only to celebrate its history but also to raise much-needed money, it turned to US consultant Anthony Knerr, who heads New York-based Anthony Knerr & Associates.

The campaign aims to raise £1 billion for the university. It has brought together more than 425 alumni in Hong Kong, secured a £3.8 million donation from the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund and seen the launch of a fundraising initiative by the department of architecture.

Peter Agar, development director, stresses that the relationship with Knerr has been more complex than simply marching off and hiring a consultant.

"What we did was specifically go to Tony. We are not employing the firm as such," he says. "He is what we have called our 'campaign counsel' and has acted as senior external adviser to the campaign."

Cambridge wanted Knerr because it had worked successfully with him in the past and he had a strong record in overseeing successful institution-wide campaigns.

On top of this, Cambridge is one of the few UK universities with a strong profile in the US (it runs a 20-strong New York office) and, of course, the US generally has a much better record than the UK when it comes to alumni fundraising.

Knerr's role, which entailed flying to the UK every six weeks, was less about deciding on specific events and more about simply providing reassurance, advice and a strategic vision, Agar says.

"He has been sitting down with me and the vice-chancellor and talking through the issues, looking at planning, targets and goals. He has been challenging us on why we are doing things the way we are and whether we are doing them fast enough," he explains.

"There have been times over the past two to three years when we have wanted to throw our hands in the air, and his role has sometimes been to kick us hard but at other times it has been to put an arm around our shoulders and say, 'it will be OK'," he adds.

Knerr influenced the setting of the ambitious £1 billion target. "He gave us the confidence, he has constantly challenged us as to whether our ambition is enough," says Agar.

The campaign is under way - and the first report on how it is going is expected in autumn - but Knerr still has a role to play. "What is useful is to have the continuity. When you are involved in something day to day, you can lose sight of where you are. Sometimes there have been bad days when I think we are not achieving enough and he is able to say, 'you may not be where you wanted to be, but I can remember where you were when I arrived'," Agar says.

The key to using a consultant, American or otherwise, is knowing what you want to achieve before you appoint them, Agar stresses.

"Consultants can play a useful role, but they can't do it for you, they cannot run the campaign. It is best to use them for a very specific activity, and to know when the job is finished," he advises.

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