Don't ask, don't get

May 19, 1995

When the vice chancellor of an Irish university ran into a prominent alumnus, he asked him a question that had been bothering him for some time.

"I heard you gave a major gift to another university," the vice chancellor said. "Why didn't you give it to your own university instead?" "Because you never bothered to ask," the alumnus replied.

Asking for money has always seemed distasteful to higher education officials in the United Kingdom and Europe. Most vice chancellors and faculty think such grubby work is beneath them. And alumni do not see why they should be asked. After all, they pay taxes, and lots of them. Why give extra?

But the fact is, as government funding is curtailed, more universities are indeed asking these days - and more givers are responding. American-style fund-raising has already come to England, as is clear from the Campaign for Oxford. But it is also emerging, slowly and quietly, in Ireland, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands. And it may even develop in such deeply-entrenched welfare states as Denmark.

That is what I learned last autumn when travelling through these countries to interview university presidents, faculty, attorneys, and alumni and development officers. I have spent 25 years working on issues related to tax policy and giving incentives in higher education in the United States. What, I wondered, was the state of such issues in Europe?

I spent ten weeks interviewing more than four dozen people on nearly two dozen campuses, from Queen's University, Belfast, to the University of Helsinki. Every country was different, and so was every campus. But it was clear to me that, distasteful or not, fund-raising is going on behind the scenes on many campuses.

Those who are not raising funds now are definitely keeping an eye on those who are. And as more governments tighten their education budgets, more officials quietly predict they will soon be asking for money too.

Europeans already prove themselves receptive to pleas for support as evidenced by their generous relief efforts in areas such as Bosnia and Ethiopia. The charitable intent exists; it simply has not been widely tapped for higher education.

Universities already are the beneficiaries of charitable gifts. After some probing, I found pockets in many institutions where gifts were being sought and won, often unbeknown to the central administration.

After the United Kingdom, Ireland appears to be the fund-raising hotbed of Europe. There, in the wake of government cutbacks, several universities are maintaining contact with alumni, setting up permanent development offices, and launching campaigns.

Elsewhere I found less organised efforts but some success nevertheless. In Belgium, which offers tax deductions to charitable givers, institutions are receiving a steady flow of gifts, including some legacies. In Finland, the University of Helsinki celebrated its 350th anniversary around 1990 with a fund-raising drive that brought in considerable money, though nothing has been done to build on that.

Sweden has no development offices, no systematic solicitation strategies, and no tax deduction for individual gifts. Nevertheless, some institutions, mainly the older ones at Lund and Uppsala, receive donations given out of sheer generosity. Individual schools, especially medical facilities, receive numerous gifts. The emergence of the Stockholm School of Economics as an aggressive seeker of corporate donations may well stimulate others to follow suit.

The copy-cat syndrome appears to be in full swing. If one institution shows some success, it quietly jolts the others (after pausing to say how contrary to tradition it is) into thinking about emulating the lead university. But isolated successes do not guarantee a groundswell of giving. Before fund-raising becomes a major source of money in any of these countries, campuses face several barriers.

Virtually all the senior administrators I met view themselves as pure academics and fund-raising as personally distasteful. They have never had to hustle for money, and few are eager to start now - even though without their active participation fund-raising is sure to fail.

The obvious solution is for presidents to take a broader view. The early fund-raising successes I heard of in Finland and Ireland were closely linked to a chief executive officer's active participation. Campus heads must be willing to invest in development, which means devoting both their own attention and the money it takes to start and sustain a programme. Americans believe that you must spend money to make money; investing in a fund-raising programme is worthwhile because the return is likely to be larger than the outlay.

The European faculty I met seldom see the potential this way. Most were wary of sharing scarce resources; others had seen fledgling fund-raising efforts fail and were reluctant to put money into "frivolous" projects.

Like presidents, faculty members need to realise that fund raising is for their own good. In the long run, they need to get over their disdain and stinginess. In the short run, a productive way to contribute is by sharing their own corporate contracts. By doing so, they foster supportive relationships in a way that benefits the whole institution.

By and large, the countries I visited had few incentives in the way of tax breaks for donors. Changing this situation requires action almost as foreign as asking for money; working with legislators to alter the tax laws. Specifically, these countries need some way to offer deductions for gifts to universities and to remove the VAT on gifts. In addition, member countries should monitor the legislative action of the European Community.

In the US, administrators aggressively court alumni with everything from glossy magazines to elaborate reunions. Underpinning these efforts are vast systems for tracking where alumni live and even what they are capable of giving. In most of the countries I visited, few campuses even bother to record addresses.

The answer here is, once again, to flout tradition. One, to build loyal alumni, is to inspire a sense of belonging among current students. Then universities need to re-establish ties with former ones. Again, this is not easy without a mailing list. But a good way to start is to go back to people who were active in campus clubs and have positive memories to build on.

Fear of asking for money is a problem even for Americans who have grown up with a tradition of giving. The solution is easy to say but hard to do: learn how to ask. The way you make an overture is not that different, no matter where you live.

European institutions must overcome their prejudice against fund-raising. Institutions must turn elsewhere than governments for help, and they must do it in a sophisticated and persistent way. Clearly, people are giving - and even more would, as the Irish vice chancellor found, if only someone would ask.

Sheldon Elliot Steinbach is vice president of the American Council for Education.

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