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.

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2 Comments on “Making philanthropy work for universities”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    One of the things North American universities do is tap their alumni almost from the minute they leave and phone them every year to get them to re-up. At least one publishes their donations with donors getting a different colour if they increased donations year on year.

    In Canada, you can get a tax receipt for $20 and a credit for this on your return, so your net donation might be $16 or so – for larger donations a higher credit applies.

    In Ireland last I checked the lowest tax efficient donation is 250 Euro unless the rules have changed since (it was a few years ago) and the institution gets the tax too so the donor is in effect donating entirely out of post tax income. If the government cannot bring itself to give the tax credit to the donor, the least it could do is allow universities to get the credit on donations as low as say 50 Euro.

  2. Vincent Says:

    You do know that this idea requires that the Universities to be nicer to all alumni. And a bit more effort than the cheap attempt at shearing that’s going on now.
    I think the first would be totally impossible for there is still the idea of owing debt. The difference in the States on this question is that the University has given something in abating fees or waving them entirely. But you cannot do that while still acting as if you are part of the Civil Service.


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