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