Double vision

US-born fundraiser Liesl Elder joins her mentor at Edinburgh, eager to help direct its 'visionary' philanthropic campaign

June 12, 2008

Liesl Elder, director of development and communications at Durham University, has been headhunted to work alongside her old mentor Young Dawkins III at the University of Edinburgh.

At Durham, she has been overseeing philanthropic fundraising, alumni relations, marketing, public relations and corporate events, and managing the university's 175th anniversary campaign. She will now succeed Robert Fleming as director of development and alumni services at Edinburgh, which has launched a £350 million campaign under the leadership of Mr Dawkins, vice-principal for development.

Ms Elder came to Durham in 2004 from Santa Clara University, having run the Californian institution's major gifts, annual giving and development research programmes, and also leading its $350 million (£179 million) campaign.

Like many fundraisers, she said, she "kind of fell into it". She studied biology at Carleton College in Minnesota and seemed set for a career in that field, or in medicine.

"I took time off and the job I got to pay the rent happened to be fundraising. Fifteen years later I'm still doing it, and it's been nothing but a pleasure."

While fundraising at Carleton, she attended a conference where one of the speakers was Mr Dawkins, then vice-president for development at Oberlin College in Ohio. "I thought, 'I like him. I want to work for him.'"

Mr Dawkins gave Ms Elder her first job dealing with major gifts, and she is delighted to be able to work beside him again.

Many of her US colleagues have been surprised by her decision to remain in the UK, but she said that her husband and two children love living here. Her husband, a teacher, is taking a PhD in British history at Durham.

"There is a whole host of cultural differences, particularly in fundraising. It's where it was 20 or 25 years ago in the US," she said.

"Fundraising is not embedded in the culture and it's kind of like putting the clock back. But it's remarkably similar in terms of (donors') motivation and generosity."

She is enthused about the move to Edinburgh.

"Their campaign is really visionary. They've made a statement about the importance of philanthropy in a way that very few others have in the UK or Europe," she said.

"Do we have some catch-up to do with the US? Of course. Even Oxford and Cambridge would say they're playing catch-up. Edinburgh is well down the road, and part of the interest is being able to help them be even more successful."

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