Fundraisers recommended to tap Eastern promises of financial aid

Philanthropic Arabs want to support global higher education. Hannah Fearn reports

September 9, 2010

Universities have been advised to look to the Middle East to boost their coffers as wealthy Arabs are increasingly keen to support higher education worldwide.

A growing population and a cultural commitment to philanthropy mean that the Middle East is now one of the most fertile lands for fundraising, delegates at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education Europe conference in Glasgow heard last week.

Speaking at a session entitled "The Wealth Pendulum Swings East", Stephen Jeffrey, vice-president for development and external relations at the American University of Beirut, said higher education was a strong part of the history of the Middle East.

According to Mr Jeffrey, Arab nations are aiming to recreate a golden age of higher education in the region, last seen during the European Dark Ages.

"Oil and conflict are not the only things we have in the Middle East. We have a population that's growing by leaps and bounds, and one that is increasingly interested in education and philanthropy.

"The Arab world (comprises) about 320 million people at this point. About 50 per cent of those are under 25 and the population is expected to more than treble in the next 20 years," he said.

"One of the things that everybody has noticed is the wealth in the region. As long as the price of oil remains high, so will the number of millionaires."

Potential donors in the region are also motivated by zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, which requires the faithful to donate 2.5 per cent of their annual income to charitable causes, he said. Even businesses are increasingly interested in donating.

"Philanthropy is on the rise," Mr Jeffrey said. "Some (businesses) are giving away large sums of money and that's an important step."

David Jeu, former director of global development at the University of Alberta, said the institution had experienced "great success with corporations within Saudi Arabia".

But he also warned of cultural problems that could halt progress when gathering gifts. Alberta sent a "high-level delegation" to meet a major donor in Saudi but struggled as the senior female members of the team could not take part in any discussions about money.

He warned that such a situation could cause a public relations problem, but added: "The situation and the values in that part of the world are what they are.

"We bring with us our own Western culture but we can't lay those values on cultures in other parts of the world in our fundraising."

Susie Hills, director of development at the University of Exeter, also said that discussions carried out through a translator could be problematic.

"Sometimes we don't understand things that are being said to us. One donor used analogies of food a lot of the time. He talked about cheese and milk," she said.


Only 2 per cent of the British population has ever thought of donating money to universities.

Even after being made aware of the concept, only 25 per cent said they would do so in future, according to a survey.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Europe to inform a campaign to encourage giving to universities during the government's matched-funding programme. The findings were disclosed to university fundraisers at the CASE Europe conference last week.

The poll of more than 2,000 people, half of whom had experience of university, found that when first asked, about 75 per cent were not moved to give to higher education. However, when the tangible benefits of donations were detailed, such as financial support for the least fortunate students, the proportion that would not give fell to 38 per cent.

The research also showed that universities were achieving less than they may have hoped for when it came to raising awareness about fundraising.

Of those who have been to university, less than a third had been approached to make a donation.

Kate Hunter, the executive director of CASE Europe, said the study showed that "knowledge and understanding of the concept (of giving to higher education) is quite low. We have got quite a lot of work to do to get that figure to increase."

Meanwhile, findings gathered from two focus groups suggest that universities could learn valuable lessons from charities about how to connect "emotionally" with donors.

Ms Hunter said that universities did not always command the "trust" of potential donors.

"They had absolute confidence in giving to charities, but they didn't feel confident with universities," she said.

"The Oxfam model of connecting to donors is (to tell them) that if they donate X amount of money, this is what the impact will be. They are making it easy to see the link between the gift and the impact."

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