Making philanthropy work for universities
As the debate about higher education funding and the return (or not) of tuition fees gathered pace in Ireland, most (but not all) politicians adopted the favoured posture of head in the sand: they didn’t want tuition fees in case this brought out hostile middle class voters, and they couldn’t offer much (or any) more public funding. So they tended to offer make-believe solutions: sometimes the prospect of higher taxes for the wealthy to provide funding (which can never be delivered, as they well know, because no tax revenues can be ringfenced for a particular purpose), sometimes the prospect of philanthropy to make up for missing public funds.
The latter ‘idea’ is particularly silly. No private donor in their right mind will donate funds to a university to compensate for declining taxpayer support, nor indeed will they give money to cover a deficit in recurrent spending. The major aim of a philanthropic donor will be to provide capital support for building projects or for pump priming a new initiative. To transfer responsibility for running costs from the state to private donors is an impossible prospect. The day to day spending of a university needs to be met from public funding, tuition fees or commercial activities; there is no other option.
However, there is a major role for philanthropy which we are only beginning to to address in this part of the world. The key ingredients of successful fundraising include engaging the institution’s alumni, ensuring that they still feel part of the university community and encouraging them in the habit of annual giving, however small in individual cases. In addition, institutions need to network with potential individual donors or trust funds and foundations, and to work with them in developing aims and objectives with which they may want to be associated.
We are, as is well known, far behind the United States in making all this happen. The culture of philanthropy which pervades the American culture – the idea of ‘giving something back’ – hasn’t yet established itself here in the same way. But at least there has been some progress. The University of Cambridge has just announced that it has been successful in raising more than £1 billion in its most recent campaign, and this is an important milestone on this side of the Atlantic. Of course Cambridge has greater opportunities to achieve this than most. but its success should give heart to others to work with alumni and friends to secure greater support.
The government and other stakeholders need to understand that philanthropy is not the answer to funding shortfalls. But the universities on the other hand need to see philanthropy as a key ingredient in the advancement of the institution and the pursuit of its objectives. And all of us who are graduates of a university need to adopt the idea that we still owe them our support, not least because the next generations of students will be the beneficiaries.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.