Shrinking violets need not apply

Conference recommends v-cs toughen up and get used to talking money, writes Hannah Fearn

September 3, 2009

Theirs has never been a job for shrinking violets, but vice-chancellors have been told that now, more than ever, they need to show some real brass neck.

Sir Duncan Rice, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, told a higher education fundraising conference that it was not only essential that university leaders be comfortable going cap in hand to ask alumni for cash, but they should also be able to leave donors with the impression that they were "doing them a favour" by asking them for money.

"In this day and age, there shouldn't be such a thing as a vice-chancellor who is uncomfortable asking for money," he said.

"If you don't have the confidence in the institution you're leading to make donors feel that you're doing them some kind of favour by asking them for money, then you shouldn't be leading it."

He was speaking at a conference held by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Liverpool last week.

He added: "Nobody has embarrassment or shame about going to the Government and asking for the money. Why should (asking donors) be any different?"

Sir Duncan's comments follow remarks made by a former vice-chancellor, speaking anonymously to Times Higher Education, who admitted that he had "never been comfortable asking people directly for money".

Sir Duncan told delegates there was a sure-fire way of teaching reluctant vice-chancellors to become confident fundraisers - setting them up with easy successes.

"My advice is to make sure that by the time they go into the meeting with the donor, the development officer has already got a commitment out of the person involved," he said.

"Nothing increases the desire for asking than having done it a few times."

Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, said she understood why some university heads were reticent about asking for donations.

"Particularly if your discipline isn't one that helped you learn interpersonal skills, it's a really hard thing to do," she said.

Conference panellists suggested that fundraisers should be involved in appointing vice-chancellors to ensure alumni relations were at the top of institutions' priorities.

Sir Duncan added that governors and senior staff should also donate cash.

"If you are on a not-for-profit board, you should be giving something, however small," he said.

"I wrote to tell my senior staff that if they didn't feel they could make a donation, then I'd make one in their name. That worked."

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