Unapologetic About Philanthropy
I CANNOT RECALL A TIME when philanthropic support for education has been such a regular part of public discourse—as well as animated dinner table conversations. After working in educational advancement for many years, it is a bit odd that a topic that has been central to my professional journey has suddenly become the subject of so much discussion, not all of it positive.
In Australia, the U.K., and the United States, we have experienced heated media commentary after generous donors made significant philanthropic investments in institutions that are meaningful to them. Some of this commentary argued that these gifts should have gone to different institutions, believing that giving to universities that are already perceived to be well-resourced does not have the impact it could if the funds were directed elsewhere.
An entirely different discussion has centered around the belief that philanthropy is transactional—that people give to benefit personally, beyond the intrinsic benefit stemming from making a difference in an institution in which the donor has a high level of interest and trust. The recent admissions scandal in the United States triggered further outrage, though the alleged fraud and bribery that led to criminal indictments had nothing to do with philanthropic investment.
Another concern arises from the perception that some donations come with unacceptable conditions, such as oversight or involvement in academic appointments, prescribed outcomes for research, or the involvement of donors in the design of academic programmes.
Advancement professionals know that this chorus of naysayers is, most often, speaking from positions of ignorance or misconception. And yet we know that this negative narrative, unless it is challenged and countered, will continue to erode public trust. It is in this greater context that all of us must raise our game and build understanding of the true and beneficial impact of philanthropic support for education.
I would suggest two ways in which we might do so. First, we must set the record straight whenever we hear references about our work that are not accurate. We should be forthright in responding when we hear mistruths—in the media or among our friends and family. Second, we must recommit to upholding the standards and ethics of the professions and identify any weaknesses in our protocols and practices—then redress them. A key component of this is the forthcoming publication of the fifth edition of the CASE Reporting Standards and Management Guidelines, being led by an impressive group of CASE volunteers.
We are aware of the (mis)perceptions about our professions and about philanthropic support of education. We will continue to speak out to remind people of the values we hold dear and of the generous and visionary motivations of the donors to whom our institutions are indebted. Because in so doing, we maintain our commitment to advance education to transform lives and society.
About the author(s)
Sue Cunningham leads one of the largest global membership associations of educational institutions. CASE provides professional development and advancement knowledge for 3700 institutions and 90,000 practitioners working in alumni relations, communications, fundraising, marketing and other related professions. Previous roles: vice-principal, advancement. the University of Melbourne; director of development, the University of Oxford; director of development, Christ Church, Oxford; and director, external relations, St. Andrews University.
She's a member of the International Women's Forum, an honorary fellow of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of the fundraising committee for the Aurora Foundation, Australia. She holds a master's degree from Oxford University and a bachelor's degree from Middlesex University. While a CASE Volunteer, she received the CASE Crystal Apple Award and a CASE Distinguished Service Award.
Article appears in:
Breaking Barriers: How advancement professionals are meeting the challenges that face community colleges. Also, a shared identity of connecting alumni through affinity groups, and how alumni advocates are rallying alumni online, at the statehouse, and beyond.