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In my opinion

The current challenges faced by university advancement offices

Gift acceptance policies need to reflect the values of an institution.


Universities in Canada welcome gifts from individuals, corporations and foundations to help achieve their academic mission and to enhance their programs and services for students. However, these gifts are not without controversy: recent reports about contentious philanthropic gifts, the potential for interference from foreign governments by way of sponsored research and partnerships with Canadian institutions, and documented examples of how donors interfere with collegial governance and/or academic freedom are just some of the factors that have influenced my research on gift acceptance policies and practices.

Over time, societal norms, values, ethics, and perspectives change. Given this constant change, it is important to recognize that within the area of philanthropy and specifically within gift acceptance policies and practices, long-term recognition, terminology and the idea of perpetuity can have unintended future implications.

As institutions entertain whether or not to accept a gift, or to solicit one, university fundraisers need to consider a number of these policies and protocols, most notably the written gift acceptance policy. Ideally the gift acceptance policy clearly reflects the institution’s values and provides guidance on how far back to follow the money. For example, if you have a policy against accepting funds from a particular industry, would you similarly reject the payment of a philanthropic gift through appreciated stocks from that same industry and/or accepting funds from an individual whose wealth was accumulated by working in industry? And do your institution’s investment and endowment policies align with this perspective?

So how adequately do existing gift acceptance policies account for the nuanced ethical; reconciliation; and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) considerations that many public medical-doctoral universities are faced with when working with donors or potential donors? Last year, my colleagues and interviewed representatives from 93 per cent of the English medical-doctoral universities in Canada, including advancement staff or leaders directly engaged in fundraising and working with donors. We also interviewed many advancement services leaders who are responsible for the implementation and compliance of gift acceptance policies and other advancement policies; in addition, we interviewed several Indigenous academic and program leaders from universities in Canada. Lastly, we interviewed a select number of fundraising thought leaders – these individuals were included to gather information about the broader impacts of gift acceptance policies on the community.

Our research uncovered several sobering findings – notably that the most cited topics in the interviews fell under fundraising principles and practices; whereas the least cited topics fell under the thematic area of EDI, reconciliation and ethics. This perhaps highlights the gaps between what the policies state and what actually happens in practice. In nearly every interview, issues around donor control, intent and expectations were discussed as common challenges for universities when working with donors on large gifts. This includes challenges relating to donors wanting to be overly involved in the implementation or administration of gifts. Many interviewees noted that the purpose of their due diligence procedures are principally to limit reputational risk for their respective university.

Many universities have strategic commitments and/or plans related to reconciliation, though most interviewees indicated there was no or limited specificity regarding the role of advancement-related tactics to support those strategies. Further, only a handful of interviewees referenced the existence of specific accountability mechanisms to ensure advancement strategic plans are aligned to university commitments and plans related to reconciliation; only four cited the same as it pertains to EDI.

Institutions of higher-learning are large and dynamic; often there are subcultures within faculties and units – including advancement. Taking this into account with staff attrition and the values held by administrative leaders, there is a lack of understanding of how and in some cases why advancement should support and promote EDI and reconciliation. Strikingly, fundraiser rights, the role of fundraisers as internal gatekeepers, decolonization and reconciliation in naming practices and accountability mechanisms for EDI and reconciliation being upheld in advancement were the least cited factors in all of our interviews; where donor intent and control, the challenges of perpetuity, reputational risk and expectations surrounding recognition were amongst the most cited.

Based on our research findings, we created a list of recommendations that could be instructive for institutions in the process of revising their gift acceptance policies.

Ultimately, gift acceptance policies need to reflect the values of an institution. There is also a great need for education to help ensure the policies are reflective of practice. In our interviews it was clear that EDI, reconciliation, decolonization and Indigenization were priorities for most institutions, however those priorities and values were not reflected in the policies. Practically, the gift acceptance policy is what you can lean on in order to decline a gift. However, it can also serve as a beacon of an institution’s commitments to human rights, EDI and reconciliation and centre those commitments in inviting donors to join them as supporters.

Tanya Rumble is the executive director of development in the faculty of arts and Yellowhead Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University and co-founder of the Recast Philanthropy community of practice. She is also the lead author of the Follow The Money: A Study of Gift Acceptance Policies and Practices at Canadian Universities.

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