Don's diary: how to get better endowed

April 18, 2003

To the Great Hall, Bart's Hospital, to celebrate the late Henry Drucker, director of the Campaign for Oxford in the late 1980s - the first UK university campaign to reach a nine-figure goal. The walls are covered with honour boards listing donors to Bart's. The earliest I can see is 1573, the latest 1905. Where do we get this myth that the British have no tradition of giving? Right across the country I encounter universities, schools, hospitals and museums founded and maintained by private philanthropy.

To Harvard University for a Council for Advancement and Support of Education seminar focusing on the leadership role in fundraising for university presidents. I am here because we are exploring how best to work with UK vice-chancellors to support their fundraising plans. Two questions keep coming up: "Where do we find the staff?" and "How do we educate the boss?" Successful fundraising is critically dependent on professional staff who are sympathetic to education, and on the commitment of the people at the top. We need to build not only skills but confidence.

Harvard president Larry Summers speaks quietly and everyone leans forward to hear the man who is sitting on an endowment of $17.5 billion (£11.1 billion). "Our ability to maintain our standing depends on our ability to raise external funds," he says. With all that dosh in the bank, what could Harvard possibly need money for? "We are terrific because in the past people gave us funds to do certain things. But if we want to do new things, we need new funds."

How well would this model, centred on real-life case studies, work for us? We tend to be mesmerised in the UK by the examples of Harvard and Stanford universities. Yet I hear representatives of two well-known American universities complain that their alumni have no habit of giving. We should not be intimidated, or carried away: fundraising in the US is cost-effective and important for profile and reputation - the US News and World Report league tables include alumni giving as a measure of success - but fundraising is contributing 7 to 15 per cent of operating budgets, not the whole caboodle.

To Hong Kong for a conference on university advancement. Hong Kong has a serious budget deficit. Minds are demonstrably concentrating. En route to Hong Kong University I pass a school outfitters called Strong Fame Ltd and then the High Cheer Tutorial Centre. Can't help feeling that Hong Kong has got what it takes to be good at this stuff. The keynote speaker is Robert Prichard, former president of the University of Toronto, a persuasive model both for Hong Kong and for Britain. Prichard does an ace job of identifying the concerns of the audience - does successful fundraising let the government off the hook? Is it only for the top tier of institutions? - and buries the hesitations under the weight of his experience and his optimism.

The Hong Kong government announces HK$1 billion (£817 million) fund to award matching grants encouraging universities to seek private support - it sounds like the Ontario scheme that helped Toronto et al . Will the references in the January white paper to the professionalisation of fundraising and a matched fund for endowment in the UK translate into something equally real? Looks like we are going to be busier than ever...

Joanna Motion is vice-president for international operations of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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