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From the admin chair

Fundraising for neophytes

What amateurs we are at raising money.


It seems arrogant for me to write a column on how to raise money. Universities are full of professionals for whom this is a full-time job. There is an international association that provides best practices around development. This column, though, is supposed to be a view from the administrative chair, and universities routinely throw complete amateurs, like myself, into the strange world of fundraising.

Starting as a complete neophyte I have found the role more interesting and less frightening than I had imagined, so I wanted to share what it is like for us amateurs to move into this world.  In Part One on this topic, I’ll discuss the rapidly growing world of fund development within universities. In my next column, I will give my own sense of what matters and what doesn’t for those of us who had to learn on the job.

Aside from our professional development officers, fundraising in universities falls primarily on two groups – presidents and deans. This is a relatively new responsibility. Until about two decades ago, Canadian administrators looked south, with a mixture of envy and disdain, at the large “advancement” enterprises in the United States. Few presidents, and fewer deans, spent much time on the campaign trail. One president who stated clearly that he didn’t see fundraising as central to his role summed up the attitude in the 1980s: it was up to governments to support universities adequately.

Unfortunately for us, governments saw the term “adequate” somewhat differently than universities did. Despite some successful campaigns in the 1980s, the real shift came in the 1990s. Governments across the country began to tackle a growing deficit problem, and universities found their real financial support shrinking.

The response was two-fold. Tuition fees increased and philanthropic support suddenly took on a new importance. One by one, universities stepped up their expectations; campaigns that seemed enormous one year were surpassed the next, until by 2004 the University of Toronto became the first in Canada to complete a $1 billion campaign. For better or worse the role, first of presidents and then of deans, had been transformed. More and more of their time was spent stewarding, cultivating and asking. More and more often boards hired presidents with an eye to their potential on the campaign trail. Today, few presidents spend less than a quarter of their time, and often much more, on fundraising. Practically every dean now sees fundraising as a significant part of the job.

The shift has reshaped university administration in significant ways often overlooked by faculty. When fundraising was marginal, a few employees could easily organize an alumni campaign, be available to accept bequests, and make occasional phone calls to prospective donors. But as the campaigns grew, two things happened.

First, the number of staff devoted to development increased rapidly. Large campaigns require large teams. This has led to a low-level controversy in universities, as faculty watch development teams hire at a rate that departments could only dream about.

There was a second important result: universities began to pay more attention to their alumni. Less than a generation ago, university-alumni connections were uneven at best.  A few – Queen’s University comes to mind – had a well-oiled alumni machine reminiscent of some U.S. schools. However, without the glue of fanatical football nor the incentive played by large-scale fund development, alumni organizations in Canadian universities were often composed of well-meaning volunteers with only marginal university support. As a result, hundreds of thousands of alumni lost contact with their universities.

In recent years universities learned two new things. First, you couldn’t simply call up alumni who hadn’t heard from you in years and then expect them to give any significant support. Second, although alumni increasingly were recognized for their donations, university leaders quickly began to understand that alumni were a powerful force, beyond their role as prospective donors. They were ambassadors, recruiters, advisers and, yes, donors.

With all these changes, one fact remains constant. Academic leaders are amateurs when it comes to raising money. They are thrown into the role because of the offices they hold. How to enter the intimidating world of fundraising will be the theme of my next column.

Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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