Why I support efforts to adopt a US approach to university fundraising

January 3, 2003

I was privileged to attend a private view of an exhibition on the Legacy of Genghis Khan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last November. One of the curators, Stefano Carboni, showed us around and explained the meaning of the exhibits.

The beautiful examples of Mongol art on display were certainly new to me, although they had been in my backyard all my life. The Met had borrowed many documents from the collection of the University of Edinburgh - and that was why I was in New York.

The museum had granted the university special access and staff so it could hold an early evening private view. Dinner was given to all alumni and friends who attended after we had feasted our eyes on the treasures on display.

Edinburgh had worked out a couple of years ago that it was necessary to generate extra funding if it was to achieve its potential, so a fundraising campaign committee was established, and I - as an alumna and recipient of an honorary doctorate from my alma mater - was asked to serve on it.

Now, of course, almost every university in the land has awakened to the realisation that the educational wells are running dry - and there is a lively public debate on top-up fees and student taxation. At Edinburgh, we think one way forward is to visit North America and to learn from our alumni there. On this occasion, however, we came to praise the university within its Met context, not to bury its alumni under overt begging bowls. So a very pleasant evening was had by all, and all left with their pockets unsolicited, never mind picked.

However, the next morning I, the principal and two others from the university sat in on an all-day meeting of the fundraising campaign committee's American sister - a group of US alumni keen to help to raise money stateside for the university's projects - and it was clear that this sister had been round the block and some.

All the US committee members were experienced worldly operators who knew what they were doing. In the course of the day, they made it clear to us that we were - to put it politely - toddling rather than striding up our chosen path. One of the main points we learnt was that we had to keep our message clear and focused.

Ironically, there is a reverse coals-to-Newcastle aspect to our co-meeting. The well-established and professionally run philanthropic tradition in the US owes a great deal to 19th-century theologian and Edinburgh professor Thomas Chalmers, whose pioneering work in persuading the Scottish middle classes to tackle urban poverty by digging into their own pockets was enthusiastically adopted and developed in North America.

To this day, that philanthropic heritage is alive and well in the US, but the tradition has fallen on stony ground back home. Part of the Edinburgh campaign's aim is to reinvigorate this tradition, and not only among its alumni. Edinburgh University, after all, contributes to many aspects of life.

We came home with a clear message as to how things stand. The Americans get a real buzz and a sense of pride from being involved with their institutions - and that is the key to their success. So important is this culture, in fact, that one of our American alumni has thrown down the gauntlet to the tune of $250,000 (£156,000) to challenge others to give - each gift will be matched dollar for dollar.

So now our mission is to bring this attitude full circle. It is time to get our alumni at home to learn the fine art of giving.

Sheena Mcdonald
Journalist, broadcaster and
University of Edinburgh alumna

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