Philanthropic downturn

It is well known that Ireland’s university sector would not be where it is in terms of its international standing without the contribution made by philanthropy; in particular, without the very major contribution made so generously by Chuck Feeney through his philanthropic vehicle, Atlantic Philanthropies, and some of the other significant donors from Ireland and overseas.

For all that, Ireland still lags far behind the United States in particular in terms of fundraising and donations. Some Irish universities are only just beginning to tap the potential of their alumni, and indeed it is important that relations with alumni are built up in a broader and more mutual context than just fundraising. And more generally, many of those in Ireland who have recently acquired wealth are still reluctant to distribute some of this to good causes, and as a society we have not yet properly emphasised the importance of supporting the causes which may help to secure a better future for the country. We are generous donors to the needs of the international community when there is a crisis (and long may this continue), but we are bad at ‘paying something back’ to help build a better future at home.

Nevertheless, it is important to see the benefits of philanthropy in higher education in the correct context. Three or so years ago when the debate about tuition fees in Ireland began to heat up, a few politicians who were opposing the imposition of fees but who accepted that higher education was under-funded argued that the deficit could be made up through fundraising. This is nonsense, because almost no donor will ever give money to compensate for a deficit in a university’s running costs. And in any case, right now the recession is taking its toll on philanthropy also, and even in the US, college fundraising campaigns have seen a substantial drop in their success rates over the past year as has been reported recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The trend, from a much lower base, is bound to be similar in Ireland.

If right now we cannot depend on philanthropic donations to solve all our financial problems, we can however take steps to ensure that in the future it can be an important aspect of our development plans and our ability to compete internationally. We can ensure that the external environment is right, and in particular that the tax regime supports donors. We can ensure that we develop the right relationships with our alumni and with potential supporters. We can ensure that we have charitable foundations or development offices that are properly established to develop the agenda. We can ensure that we have proper capital plans for our institutions in which there are opportunities for fundraising and giving. We can ensure that we have a framework of good practice and ethics that will reassure all those who work with us that fundraising is pursued in the right way and for the right reasons. And we can try to ensure that there is a national mood that emphasises the value of philanthropy.

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4 Comments on “Philanthropic downturn”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    You got that right on the tax situation. Last time I checked it was 250 Euro before any tax would be paid over by Revenue. I can donate any amount from 1 cent up in Canada and I can put it on my tax return – and I get the refund, not the institution. I’m okay with the Irish regime where the institution gets the tax benefit, but the threshold should come way down, since new alumni will probably donate in the 25-100 Euro range.

  2. Maria Says:

    I am reminded of the baseball movie Field of Dreams with The Voice whispering ‘If you build it, he will come.’ Kevin Costner, a farmer plows over his crop to build a baseball field awaiting a game to come to life. Just as Kevin Costner’s frustration for instant success and plowing over his life work, fundraising in Irish universities should be approached with caution. It will take time before there is a true cultural shift in Irish universities towards philanthropy. Are Irish universities concentrating efforts on wooing the potential mega-rich for donations? Is this at the expense of today’s students (and alumni) who may be just as committed or interested in supporting their alma mater in future? Building relationships takes time: Ensuring students have a positive experience and connecting with alumni is a long process. Universities will need patience because fundraising is not the quick fix it is sometimes made out to be. Incidentally, the movie, after time and tribulations, had a happy ending.

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Another problem is that philanthropy makes demands that often contradict the demands of government and since we will never have full fees here, the government will always be the main pay master. Philanthropy wants prestigious buildings, it want the secret of the universe, the mystery of the mind, it wants fun and adventure and it wants the best; government wants science that supports the immediate need of industry, it wants lots of good enough and Batt O’Keefe believes architecture is always a waste of money. Government wants us to show we lack don’t care for romance, romance is what philanthropy want. Of course, the great glory of Universities, the secret that has ensured our survival across the centuries, is that we are adept at serving many masters.

  4. Fundly Says:

    The drop in US philanthropic giving to universities is real, but I think the financial crisis is somewhat masking other aspects of the problem. People have changed the way they interact socially (now online), and that has changed the way they give.

    Universities have huge dinners every year and raise money by charging $1000 or so per plate. That model has worked well for years, but it’s only really targeting 10% of alumni.

    There’s another 90% out there who are probably willing to donate $50 or $100 per year. It’s not much, but when you start getting thousands of those donations, it starts to add up.

    Irish universities could use online fundraising to reach out personally to alumni with a low cost of overhead.


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