Big thinking wins big gifts

Universities profit from philanthropists' faith in their ability to change lives. Hannah Fearn writes

November 19, 2009

Universities receive more gifts of £1 million or above than any other charitable sector, a survey has found.

Higher education institutions were given 56 gifts of £1 million or more in 2007-08, according to the Coutts Million Pound Donor Report - up from 45 the previous year.

The average value of a large gift to a university was £5.6 million, and the total represented almost 40 per cent of the value of all major benefactions to all sectors during the year. Moreover, higher education is the most popular cause for big donations from individuals after the arts and culture; it received 22 gifts of £1 million or more directly from patrons.

The figures are a sign that philanthropy in the UK is "remarkably resilient" despite the recession, according to the report compiled by Beth Breeze, a researcher in philanthropy at the University of Kent. It adds that philanthropists view universities as an attractive cause.

Joanna Motion, executive director of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), said donors were drawn to the idea that education "transforms lives".

"Donors also see universities as the places where we have the best chance of tackling the big challenges facing society," she said.

Shaun Horan, director of development and external affairs at the University of Reading, suggested that the appeal lay in the notion that universities could change the world. "Someone on campus is going to find a cure for cancer. Somebody is going to find a cure for obesity. A university researcher is going to solve those problems. That's what excites people."

Mr Horan added that UK universities offered a high level of transparency when dealing with large gifts, which was alluring to the rich.

"Universities have become very good at saying, 'You have given us this money and 100 per cent of it is going on this cause.' We have an advantage in that sense."

The University of Oxford told Times Higher Education that it had received 15 gifts of more than £1 million during 2007-08, while the University of Cambridge had registered 16 pledges of that size. The figures do not include donations made directly to colleges.

Last week, the annual Ross-CASE survey of university fundraising showed that universities are raising more from their alumni than ever before, collecting a total of £682 million in new gifts in 2007-08.

Gift income had increased 54 per cent between 2005 and 2008.

However, experts say that while universities have a track record with big gifts, they are less good at securing smaller sums.

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