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Fundraising: Much more than money is at stake for universities

More than ever before, universities in Europe are becoming interested in fundraising. Christian Vranek discusses the different kinds of income-generating partnerships for universities and why they matter for the future of Europe.

For many years, interaction between universities and the private sector seemed to primarily focus on research and innovation partnerships. But today, interest in fundraising is on the rise in a competitive context in which an increasing number of organisations already collect money for their activities in a highly professionalised way – and this is an important development for many different reasons.

Universities that seek to establish successful fundraising activities can work with several tools. Foundations, “friends” associations, sponsorships and crowdfunding are the main instruments to support the missions of universities in alternative ways. These tools can work together, like an orchestra, or individually.

Before implementing a fundraising strategy, it is crucial that universities analyse their immediate environment, both inside and outside the institution. Fundraising needs leadership and attention, a team that works for the needs, rather than for the sole reputation, of the university.

It is also important to take into consideration different funding cultures, tax incentives, the history of an institution and the characteristics of its alumni base, as well as current economic conditions and societal aspects. Each university should tailor its own strategy based on these different parameters; a concept that works successfully in London might not work in other cities or countries. Fundraising concepts help universities to identify the needs, possibilities and the right tools for cooperation. Normally, fundraising strategies are highly individual.

Furthermore, fundraising at universities must respect and even strengthen a series of core principles. The freedom of research and teaching must be warranted, the investment of donors or sponsors must conform with the university strategy, and the cooperation and investments must strengthen the reputation of the university. All activities must be transparent and fundraising nowadays must be sustainable.

In the so-called “post-truth era”, it has become essential for universities to find partners for cooperation to strengthen their work and to intensify the dialogue and communication with civil society. Universities have a special responsibility in this matter, as keepers of sincere and independent content, but often require external help to better reach out beyond their traditional constituencies. Partnership-building and fundraising activities can encourage the quality of democracy. Indeed, in healthy democracies, independent media, free artistic expression and autonomous education and research at universities build the immune system of a society.

Universities are lighthouses of knowledge and need to build bridges, with partners and society, to increase interest in science and in the challenges of the future. It is also important to reflect on the way science works, and how universities operate, as places of free and critical thinking without a commercial interest. Universities have big assets, but the challenge is to find sympathisers and partners who strengthen the culture and activities and transmit these values to the public. Fundraising means generating partnerships, and in a sense “friend-raising”.

Sponsorship is based on considerations and activities that are spelled out in an agreement or contract between partners – sponsorship is indeed also a form of partnership. It is built from the unique selling proposition that the institution makes to potential sponsors. It needs to define planned activities to reach identified goals and be supported by a financial plan and a “sponsor pyramid”. The unique selling proposition must be translated in the approaches relevant to the different interests of the sponsors (scientific, artistic, political, economic, touristic, and so on). Sponsorship is an interesting and versatile tool when combined with public relations, marketing and hospitality activities. Not only does it give a public platform to university activities, but it also helps transmit content; it promotes open-mindedness of staff, helps generate new relationships, works as a soft control instrument, and ultimately creates win-win-win situations. To put it in a nutshell, sponsorship is much more than searching for money.

Let me illustrate this point with an example of a concert cycle called “Musical Adventure Central Europe” that I established some years ago for the International Summer Academy Prague-Vienna-Budapest. The project involved the leading music universities of Central and Eastern Europe, the Chamber of Commerce Austria and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a context marked by the 2004 enlargement of the European Union, this initiative focused on the richness of music and musical talents in this region to foster new interaction between Central European countries in a growing EU, based on common cultural heritage.

The project gained media interest and allowed the partner universities to reach out to a broader public. Deeply impressed by the young artists featured, prospective sponsors who had been invited decided to endow scholarships for high talented students from Central and Eastern Europe to participate in the master classes of the International Summer Academy – a true “win-win-win” situation.

We, as university leaders, practitioners and partners, are not lacking in important reasons to search for friends and start working for a better Europe; but ultimately, it is simply in everyone’s interest to assemble different actors in society to support the values upheld by universities.

Christian Vranek discussed this topic at the 4th EUA Funding Forum held on 18-19 October 2018 at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, Spain.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Christian Vranek

Christian Vranek is an expert and consultant in sponsorship for science, the arts and business.

Photo credit: ©Gerlinde Miesenböck

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