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Talking Shop: Supporting Brilliant Minds
Talking Shop: Supporting Brilliant Minds

Chris Cox on what philanthropy does best—and how to share that message with donors

By Ken Budd

Chris Cox, Vice-principal of philanthropy and advancement at the University of Edinburgh

Chris Cox is the chair of the 2016 CASE Europe Annual Conference (CEAC) in Brussels and helped shape its theme, "The Big Shift." The idea: As governments reduce funding for higher education, university leaders need to seize new fundraising opportunities, be more entrepreneurial, leverage new sources of income, and promote the value of their institutions. For conference information go to

How can institutions work effectively with highly engaged donors?

I cringe inwardly when I hear people say they are adopting a "donor led" strategy. Starting programs from scratch or distorting goals to meet a donor's interests almost always results in disappointment. A good rule of thumb: If you can't identify the academic on campus who will be driven to deliver a program, you're doomed before you start. If you do work with such a donor, show you have a plan for the program. You can discuss details and how you'll measure success, but the overall direction has to come from the institution. And if things go off plan, as they inevitably do, keep the donor updated. Silence is often a killer with these relationships.

Some donors are interested in concepts such as social impact investment or venture philanthropy. Are these vehicles appropriate for educational institutions?

My hunch is, rarely. Educational philanthropy works best when donors are inspired to support brilliant minds on campus—whether staff or students—so they can chase their dreams for the public good. I'm less keen on universities becoming a delivery vehicle for other peoples' ideas, however brilliant those ideas may be.

In 2015 you led a CEAC session titled "10 Good Reasons Never to Do a Campaign." What is THE top reason for not doing a campaign?

It puts the cart before the horse. We've learned as a sector to be sensitive to donor motivations and develop a shared vision. At the magical moment when those conversations take flight, the dollar amount is rarely relevant until a late stage, and it's never an end in itself. I think it's hard to maintain that deeper level of conversation if we're simultaneously saying, "We need $50 million by next Tuesday." Artificial targets can undermine the authenticity of the conversation, which is vital. And because institutions often use different counting methodologies, campaign comparisons have become meaningless.

What are the biggest challenges facing higher education fundraising?

In Europe, it will be managing philanthropy's transition from being somewhat peripheral to absolutely central to achieving our institutions' most substantial and aspirational goals. As development leaders, we'll need to coach our institutions and manage expectations, while simultaneously remaining ambitious and optimistic. But on balance, it's better that we develop a reputation for underpromising and overdelivering. We do no one any favors if we allow unrealistic philanthropic income projections to become embedded in institutional budgets.

What are the biggest opportunities?

Millions of people of financial means still don't grasp the long-lasting impact of our research and learning programs. We've become better at communicating that over the past decade, and we sound much less self-interested than we used to, thank goodness. Our messaging tended to be, "Support us so we can rise up the rankings and build shiny new buildings." Now it's more, "Help us educate the next generation of problem-solvers" or "Boost our research to tackle major scientific and policy issues." That's a deeper message, and far more attuned to donors' aspirations. There's a big opportunity for us to better communicate the relevance of our institutions.

About the Author Ken Budd Ken Budd

Ken Budd is a former editor in chief of Currents. His writing credits include The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post. He is the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.




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