Give it forward: Donating to universities

23 Sep 2010 Voices

UK universities are bucking the trend on charitable donations receiving more philanthropic donations than last year, but how are they doing it and how long will the generosity last? Joanna Motion spares a few thoughts.

Giving to universities in the UK is on the up. At a time when doom and gloom darkens the landscape, educational philanthropy is a source of light and cheer. In 2008-09, cash gifts to UK universities broke through the half billion pound mark for the first time – a heartening 18.8 per cent rise on the previous year. This in the teeth of the recession; bucking the trend in charitable giving in general; and in striking contrast to a drop in giving of 11.9 per cent to universities in the USA – so often used as the gold standard.

So what are we doing right? And can we keep up the momentum in the face of an ominous alliance of threats? 

Good news first. Universities are increasingly fundraising-friendly and fundraising-ready. Ambition, strategy, investment and sharpening professional skills are showing results. JK Rowling’s recent £10m gift to the University of Edinburgh for – or, rather, against – multiple sclerosis simply wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Nor could Cambridge University’s demolition this year of its £1bn campaign goal. Those satisfyingly chunky numbers are the fundraising equivalent of the 4-minute mile. A target that seemed humanly unattainable is brought into the realm of the do-able for those with courage, focus and training.

Then successive governments have helped. First through changes to the tax treatment of gifts. And then with the launch of the Matched Funding Scheme in 2008 – £200m for English universities and £10 for Welsh – to encourage giving to higher education. That time-limited opportunity has changed the conversation. With a cash incentive in front of them, universities have professionalised their development operations, talking to their supporters with a new urgency.

The Matched Funding Scheme also provides an investment in structured training. CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) has boosted fundraising skills at all levels in universities, from Vice-Chancellors and Governors to Deans, Development Directors and shiny new graduate trainee fundraisers – a powerful legacy to the future. The impact of the opportunity has been greatest on universities without a long tradition of philanthropy.

Thames Valley University, to take one example, has worked hard to bring its base of just seven donors in 06-07 to an admirable 691 by 09-10. The rise in the number of donors to universities is a striking indicator, increasing at a steady rate of 12 per cent a year over the past five years, amounting to over 163,000 at the last count.

It means that behind the headline-making gifts from JK Rowling, James Dyson and Leonard Blavatnik there’s a swelling army of ordinary individual donors: university alumni, parents, neighbours, staff members – those who feel an attachment to a university and personally value what happens there. Those, too, who recognise that the big problems darkening our collective future – climate change, vile diseases, social injustice – have perhaps their best chance of being tackled within universities and by the bright, socially engaged people they produce.
Gifts to universities are gifts to the future. Not so much giving back as giving forward.

So far so good, then. But what of the threats? At a time when higher education is braced for dramatic cuts in public funding, two dragons, approaching from different directions, menace our growing army of private donors. One is the idea of a graduate tax and its many variants. And the other is the notion that gift aid could be streamlined – but in ways that would disadvantage major donors.

Giving is a voluntary act. Tax is an obligation. Giving – as donors tell us – is satisfying, rewarding, emotionally engaging. No one feels joyful about paying tax and compulsory levies: that’s a dour necessity. Philanthropy accelerates when the conditions are right: when donors choose to act from a basis of knowledge and conviction in partnership with an institution they trust. They repeat the experience – often with knobs on – when they see their money making the difference they hoped for. And the larger the gift, the more thought donors will take over the timing and means of its delivery – the tax implications, for instance.

So the question is, whom do we want alumni to have a continuing relationship with - and from which end of the telescope will we view the experience? The more we consider the donors’ perspective, and provide and protect mechanisms that encourage their generosity, the greater the philanthropic impact – and not just for education.

The lessons universities have learned in the past decade have meaning for the arts and heritage, for health and for high street charities too. So it’s in all our interests if the Treasury gift aid forum, due to report to ministers this month, regards the future of giving from the donors’ point of view. And then, if the Browne Review on student funding, expected to report next month, identifies funding models that encourage university graduates to behave as supportive philanthropists, rather than compel them to be grudging tax payers.  

Joanna Motion is vice president for international operations at CASE

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