The culture of asking

By Kate Hunter, Executive Director, CASE Europe.

There is nothing new about philanthropy and education. Many of the origins of the UK’s 250 or more higher education institutions lie in the generosity and far-sightedness of individuals, communities and organisations. Two centuries ago the citizens of Glasgow contributed through a subscription campaign to move the growing University of Glasgow to a new campus in the west end of the city; a legacy from insurer Barber Beaumont led to the establishment of the People’s Palace, an institution providing education for the people of the capital’s East End, today known as Queen Mary, University of London. Shipping magnate Joseph Constantine made a gift that led to the establishment of Constantine technical college in the north east, a predecessor institution of Teesside University.

These stories of transformation and philanthropic support for education are replicated in cities and institutions all over the country. Some might say that these are examples of Victorian philanthropy where a sense of moral duty or noblesse oblige among the wealthy was the driver behind such generosity. Today educational philanthropy is reinventing itself, with more and more people giving to support universities and a greater understanding and active support for the case for education. With state funding for higher education unlikely to increase, philanthropy has an increasingly significant role to play in HE’s financial equation. It will never replace state support, nor are donors motivated to support an institution’s core costs, but philanthropy can provide for the margin of excellence, accelerate change and allow for budget offsetting. Universities are ‘exempt charities’ and so asking for philanthropic support is completely legitimate; some may even refer to this as a moral imperative.

For almost a decade successive UK governments have recognized and encouraged, through a range of interventions, a culture of asking and giving to support higher education. A capacity building programme and a £200m investment in the Matched Funding for Voluntary Giving scheme from 2008-2011 have focused on professionalizing fundraising and incentivising gifts. This pioneering initiative – amid the economic crisis – helped the number of donors giving to our higher education institutions grow to over 200,000, up by 20 per cent over two years, with cash income raised by the sector now reaching over £0.5 billion per year for the last three years.

Universities are becoming more professional in their fundraising approaches and stewardship of donors. They are also increasingly able to communicate the positive impact that gifts of any size can make. They are getting better at ‘asking’, which more frequently brings positive responses from alumni and others. Making a gift to a university is no longer the domain of just the very rich; it’s becoming something that ordinary people, including students, do. This year’s Loughborough University’s £20.12 ‘gradgift’ scheme saw over 600 students and supporters contribute funds for  student hardship and other projects.

Today’s donors are motivated for three principal reasons. First, they want to create opportunities for scholarship and study, supporting deserving students in need of financial assistance, or projects which provide wider access to higher education. Second, they may be driven by a sense of gratitude for their own experiences of higher education and want to see that continued for the next generation. Third, donors of all sorts and sizes recognise that solutions for many of the challenges facing the global community lie in the university research laboratory, classroom or lecture hall. Our universities are where the answers to problems of global warming, health inequalities and social equity are to be found. Donors are excited by the truly cutting-edge research and transformative teaching that our universities continue to deliver on a regular basis.

In making a gift to a university, donors of all types and levels want their contribution to make a difference to a cause, project, institution or community that they care passionately about. This desire to achieve transformation and impact is a common motivation among donors. The ground-breaking £7million gift, announced last week, from the John & Lucille van Geest Foundation to the University of Leicester to support cardiovascular research is undoubtedly an exceptional gift, motivated by similar reasons. It will have transformative effect on future cardiovascular patients in the Leicester community and ultimately globally – they will benefit from accelerated research and personalised medicine.

Equally significantly, the Leicester gift is one of a growing number of multi-million pound donations made to an increasing number and type of institution across UK higher education. Recent gifts from Mica Ertegun and Michael Moritz to support scholarships at Oxford are truly inspirational, but let’s also applaud the £10m gift to Southampton University for cancer immunology, Dickson Poon’s £20m gift for King’s College London’s School of Law and Nat Puri’s £1m gift for engineering at London South Bank University. These gifts raise ambitions, sights and set examples. While some institutions may have previously dismissed fundraising, saying ‘we don’t have the tradition, projects or alumni profile’, the success of Leicester and other universities demonstrate that the cumulative fundraising advantage, or ‘Matthew effect’, may not always be true. Next month’s HEFCE review of higher education philanthropy, led by Professor Shirley Pearce, is expected to bust that particular myth once and for all.

Kate Hunter is Executive Director at CASE Europe. You can find her on Twitter @kahunter.

One Comment

  1. Tweeting Johnny
    Posted 17/08/2012 at 21:16 | Permalink

    Philanthropy has always been at the heart of UK higher education. For the last 50 years we’ve been funded by the tax payer. That’s changing. Philanthropists need to step up to rival those of previous ages. HE needs to be ready for the changes that will bring.


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