May 202013
Boundless Campaign Posters in Toronto

‘Boundless’ campaign posters hang from the lamp posts in the University of Toronto.

I feel I should start this post with an optimism warning: the robust scepticism that is my trademark has been completely dissolved by a cascade of generosity, good humour and potentially priceless information delivered by some of the most professional, friendly and good-humoured colleagues I have ever met. The sensation is almost like a mild hangover after the most astonishingly fabulous party, the CASE fundraising study tour of Canadian universities.

The tour is an annual event, led by Joanna Motion and organised this year by the indefatigable Emma Darwin. Groups of academic leaders and fundraising professionals from Europe visit Canadian universities to learn how they approach fundraising. Canada is a good place to learn about university fundraising because the culture is fairly similar to ours but the practice tends to be about 20 years ahead. We visited McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo Universities, and the University of Toronto Mississauga. Everywhere we went we were given lavish hospitality while fundraising professionals, university leaders and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar donors shared with us stories of past difficulties and present successes. On day one, at McMaster we learned about the motivations of the three main actors, the fundraising professionals, the donors and the academic leaders.

Lorna Somers, vice president of McMaster University Foundation, told us about the transition from her early days at McMaster, in the late 1980s, when academics treated her ‘like someone with advanced leprosy’ and alumni would tell her that universities should look to the government for any money they wanted. Now academics are eager – sometimes too eager – to be involved. McMaster’s annual fundraising target is $21 million and their last campaign raised $470 million in 4 years.

Donors have changed too, as we discovered over lunch, when we met three of McMaster’s most generous donors. All were alumni who had lost touch with the university and had been attracted back, either to study or because they wanted to get involved in the running of the university. For each of them, giving was prompted by the realisation that they had the means to help the university do something exciting and extraordinary. This realisation is not the result of a fevered sales pitch but rather the culmination of a long relationship. Most of McMaster’s top 20 donors started small, with less than $1000 and more than a decade elapsed between their first gift and their major gift.

McMaster was not the only place where we heard how important it is to manage, or steward, relationships with donors. Donors give because they want to make a difference. Once they have given, they need to be told what their gift has achieved. Then they may know that they can achieve more by giving again. Professionals, who take the lead in donor stewardship, involve academic leaders to generate and sustain both the excitement, that may result in a gift, and the satisfaction, that the gift has been put to good use.

Lorna told us that not all academic leaders are good at this. My inference is that we tend to get too hung up on the issue of asking for money, ‘the ask’. Some of us are terrified of the idea, so we treat Lorna and her colleagues like lepers. Others become too eager to ask; they become ‘askaholics’.

Fortunately, Lorna had arranged for John Kelton, Dean of Health Sciences at McMaster, who has raised over $200 million in the last ten years, to talk to us about his relationships with major donors. Significantly, our meeting took place in the ‘floating board room’ which floats in space in the atrium of the Michael G. De Groote School of Medicine, a building funded by a donation of $105 million, the largest single donation to a Canadian University.

John’s account of his work with donors made it clear that listening is at least as important as talking. John listens to donors and remembers what they say. He wants to understand what a prospective donor is interested in, so that he doesn’t waste their time talking to them about projects they will never care about. One of the reasons Lorna likes working with John is that he listens well and is good at crafting a version of what the university wants that will excite a prospective donor: ‘he always has a dream in his pocket’ she says. But he also takes a university-wide perspective and shares prospective donors whose interests are outside his area.

Our day at McMaster ended with a dinner party at Lorna’s house. The house looks ordinary from the outside but it contains the most extraordinary collection of collections of clothes, books, shoes, oil cans, semi-precious stones, fossils, china among others. The list is not endless but it is not short either. I could not possibly do justice to it here but if you Google Lorna you can find a hint of what may be there. And the food was great too!

After our day at McMaster, I felt that there was no more to learn. I was wrong. Although our visits to the other three universities confirmed everything we had learned at McMaster, in each of them we learned something distinctive and new.

Max Blouw, President of Wilfrid Laurier University,  talked to us about the fact that a successful campaign must be rooted in reality. One of the first tasks he had set himself as President was to lead the university to develop a story about itself based on the facts of the present rather than the myths of the past. As a result the Wilfrid Laurier mission ‘Inspiring Lives of Leadership and Purpose’ contains a strong component of business excellence which adds distinctiveness to the slightly bland image that had been based on their origins as Waterloo Lutheran University. A significant component of their current campaign is a $103 million ‘Global Innovation Exchange’ building, which will house their School of Business and Economics and their School of Mathematics.

Waterloo University, just next door to Wilfrid Laurier, has a story of themselves as producers of scientific and technological innovations that fuel a local high-technology economy. They encourage their staff, their students and their alumni to generate wealth, substantial chunks of which get fed back as donations. Waterloo alumnus and inventor of the BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis, has given hundreds of millions to support research to develop technologies of the future – Nanoscience and Quantum Computing. A Waterloo student donated the million dollars profit he made from selling his first business. Despite these successes, only a small fraction of the alumni who could make substantial donations do so. Many alumni are out of reach; they are disconnected from the university. Jason Coolman, Director of Alumni Affairs, told us about his research on how to use ‘elite’ alumni to engage these disconnected alumni and gradually get them engaged.

UT Mississauga’s President, Deep Saini, has had his car licence plate changed to ‘Boundless’ – truncated by the 8 letter limitation. Colleagues call it the ‘boundlesmobile’.

On our last day, at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), Gillian Morrison, Assistant Vice-President, Divisional Relations and Campaigns, from the University’s central Campaigns office, talked us through the stages in developing UT’s extraordinary $2 billion ‘Boundless’ campaign. The biggest in Canadian university history, the campaign is completely coherent with the academic mission, and, as illustrated by UT Mississauga President Deep Saini’s car (see left), has the complete commitment of academic leaders. This shows that smaller universities can have no excuse for lack of coherence in their campaigns.

As my euphoria begins to clear, the serious question I think we should consider is this. Could we emulate what the Canadians have done? The more I think about it the more that I think that we could. Moreover, if we learn from their mistakes rather than repeating them, we could do it faster. I think that an average sized, middle-ranking UK university should be able to get to a point where they are raising £5-£10 million per year from philanthropy within 5-10 years.

Postscript: I’d like to record the immense gratitude of all the tour delegates to Joanna Motion and   Emma Darwin.  Joanna was our guide; she prepared us for each of the very different visits, checking with each of us what we wanted to discover and making sure  that we had the opportunity to discover it. Emma arranged everything, effortlessly resolving the minor crises and making sure that lost delegates and lost suitcases all returned to the fold.
A shorter version of this post is available at The Guardian
May 052013

I posted last week on the Guardian HE website under the headline University managers are not malicious, we are misunderstood. The post provoked a lively discussion that made me realise that I want to write more on the topic, so by way of introduction, here’s my latest version of the Guardian HE article.

Although it was over 30 years ago, I still remember the shock of discovering that I was no-longer a student.  In the middle of my first tutorial, it hit me that there was a fundamental difference in outlook between me and my students. I wanted them to understand the complexity and beauty of the brain. They wanted me to tell them how to get a good mark with minimum effort.

Many academics feel that a similar difference in outlook separates them from their senior managers. Academic values, dedication to the development of discipline and the education of students, all are under threat from managers like me. We are drowning them in a cascade of initiatives, processes and performance indicators. We put academics under pressure do things that are manifestly stupid. We want to turn first-rate universities into second-rate businesses. We are incompetent and stupid.

This accusation is wrong. Managers are not malicious. We are not stupid. We are misunderstood. Before I became a manager I thought I knew why. It is fiendishly difficult for a manager to write a message that cannot be read as a some kind of cynical attempt to undermine academic values. Well-meaning but badly-expressed messages are seen as sinister, or stupid.

After a decade in management I know that I was wrong. It’s not fiendishly difficult. It’s impossible. Someone who feels threatened – whether or not the feeling is justified – makes what I call an assumption of unreasonableness. They assume that the message is a threat and they find evidence to support that assumption.

And it is a mistake to think that, because academics are clever, they are less likely to misunderstand a well-intentioned message. The opposite is true. Clever people are better at searching for evidence. And if it is hard to find the evidence, that makes the threat more powerful because it makes it look as if the evidence was concealed. The concealment implies that management intended to deceive as well as to threaten.  Once the assumption of unreasonableness has taken root, sinister interpretations can always drive out more plausible benign ones.

The assumption of unreasonableness has a helpful twin that you can use to protect yourself from perceived threats. Before I discuss it I’d like to despatch a perennial misconception that cropped up in the live chat about grant applications that I participated in a couple of weeks ago. It occurs in several variants but the general idea is that research, particularly winning grants and producing 4*-rated publications counts for everything and someone who delivers on the research front can neglect their teaching, shirk departmental duties and still win promotion.

I do not subscribe to this idea. The strength of our universities depends on the fact that they combine teaching and research. Neglect of teaching duties should put promotion out of the question and it could lead to dismissal. I once gave a senior colleague a formal disciplinary warning for deliberately neglecting to mark a piece of student work. A further disciplinary offence would have led to dismissal. The colleague found another job within a few months.

The fact is that as a senior manager I find that my concern for academic values has increased and my focus has broadened. I spend a lot of time helping academics work out how to succeed, both in teaching and in research, and win promotion. This is the fun part of the job. Occasionally I have to help them drive out the assumption of unreasonableness and replace it with its helpful twin, from which it was separated at birth, the assumption of reasonableness.

I recommend that you try this at at work the next time that you receive an apparently  hostile pronouncement from management. I have also found it helpful for dealing with threatening emails from vindictive colleagues. You have to make the assumption that the message is, in fact, intended to be helpful, that the writer of the message does in fact share your values, but that they have written in haste, expressed themselves clumsily, and maybe made a few mistakes. You must find the evidence, however slim, that supports this assumption.

Then, act as if the assumption of reasonableness were proven. My experience from doing this is that often it is possible to get the assumption of reasonableness to replace its evil twin and to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may seem like foolishness, but it really works. It happened to me at work this week, so I want to post about it soon.

An uncomfortable question arises if the assumption of reasonableness doesn’t work. If there really is a fundamental difference in outlook between you and the senior management of your university, then you can be sure that someone is not doing a very good job. The important question to ask is this. Can you be sure it isn’t you?

And please don’t all write to tell me. I have worked it out. When I ask the same question about that tutorial 30 years ago, the answer isn’t as comfortable as I would like!