Learn from our cultural kin how to reel it in

August 26, 2005

A trip to Canada convinced sceptic Jon Baldwin that the UK could catch up with North American fundraising

Every so often UK universities are taunted by everyone from Gordon Brown to the popular press about the success of the American model of university fundraising. Harvard University's fabled endowment and Princeton University's astonishing number of alumni donors are held over us and we reach for excuses: "They are decades ahead of us - we have too much basic groundwork to do"; or "Americans are innately more philanthropic than the British".

So when Warwick University's development director suggested that I take up an invitation from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case) to join a group of senior UK university staff in a tour of Canadian university "advancement" offices, both he and I were somewhat shocked to hear me say "Yes, OK then..."

Canada was an intriguing comparator. It is just that bit closer to us culturally, with government-funded universities who may be more diffident than their southern neighbours in talking about money and younger in their investment in fundraising. The tour took in four rather different universities, ranging from research-intensive to an ex-polytechnic (Toronto, McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier and Ryerson universities). We dined with presidents and deans, interrogated donors, were briefed by teams of professional staff and visited facilities such as high-tech call centres.

The visit also challenged a number of sceptical mindsets. Did it change any of them?

My biggest surprise was how familiar some things sounded. At Wilfrid Laurier, for instance, they were proud of how committed their students were to "advancement" principles. They excitedly told me about how the students had donated money from their own pockets to improve their student union building. This had a familiar ring to it. Back at Warwick I recalled that the students who use our sporting facilities had just agreed to commit £30 each to massively expand the range of sports activities on campus. Perhaps the North American mindset wasn't so alien after all.

Perhaps the only difference in outlook is a British approach that does not make such a song and dance about the willingness to make financial commitments.

So is it all just common sense? The tour convinced me that this activity made "sense", but we are far from making it common. Everywhere I went I saw that there was more than just a consensus that "advancement" was a worthy activity. There was a consistent understanding across the campus that it was an indispensable tool and central to university planning. As a sector we have much to do before we can make that vision as widespread in our own institutions.

Did this tour vindicate my first cynical thought - are we just too far behind our North American cousins? It is true that when I looked around each of the four Canadian universities the advancement culture was much more integrated and pervasive than I have seen in UK institutions, but one thing seemed very familiar - the people. The staff we have in UK development, alumni affairs and communications offices look and sound just as professional and committed as the staff in the Canadian advancement offices. They talk the same language and focus on the same strategic and operational issues.

Those professionals still have a tough job to build the sort of culture that I witnessed in Canada. But I am convinced that we in the UK have the ability, the will and certainly the need, to make good use of the tools advancement offers.

An unpredictable element is the impact of impending changes in UK higher education funding. Will the new tuition fees for 2006 make the next wave of students less open to approaches to put back in? Or will they value more highly what they pay more for? So far, Warwick's experience of fundraising from young alumni is distinctly encouraging. They are street smart. They get what this is about.

The next two steps for UK advocates of advancement must be to persuade the Government to emulate the Canadian Government's financial support for universities' advancement programmes - the Ontario provincial Government's Student Opportunities Fund, which matches individual donations, has been transformational - and to build a broader consensus for advancement right across our institutions. Today, those advocates of advancement can claim one small step: they have persuaded one university registrar of the importance of their work.

Jon Baldwin is registrar at Warwick University. The Case European Annual Conference is in Edinburgh next week.

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