Higher Education: Passing the hat in high places: Oxford has mastered the art of fund-raising, says Michael Durham

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The Independent Online
YOU ARE a distinguished, if slightly crusty, elderly gentleman who has fallen on hard(ish) times. After much soul- searching, you decide to pass round the begging bowl. Somewhat to your surprise, the money rolls in, and a comfortable future is assured. But what do you do now?

Next month, senior staff at Oxford will meet to decide what to do when the university's pounds 340m public appeal closes. The six-year campaign is due to end in 1994, and the university must consider whether to raise its financial sights and ask for more, or call a halt and consolidate its gains.

The Campaign for Oxford, launched in 1988, has been one of the most ambitious and successful public appeals ever mounted. Originally, the plan was to raise pounds 220m, but it was so successful the university soon raised the target. In a little over four years, Oxford has raised pounds 238m - an impressive feat, even though the figure includes recurrent support and sponsorship offered before the campaign's launch.

It has been a controversial exercise. The university claimed it was forced to go cap in hand because of dwindling government support following cuts in higher education funding in 1981 and 1986. Sir Patrick Neill, then Vice-Chancellor, said at the campaign inauguration that it was necessary 'to safeguard the independence of Oxford and to ensure that it maintains and enhances its position as a university of world renown'.

Some academics were uneasy. They argued that it would lead to an irreversible shift to private funding of universities and set a precedent that would undermine public education as a whole. Less well- known institutions grumbled that it would siphon off resources that ought to be more equitably distributed.

It has even been said that Oxford does not need the money. The Economist, in an unusually bad-tempered analysis, challenged the university's sums and estimated that the 35 colleges had undeclared investments of pounds 900m. Oxford, it said, was far from short of cash: it was a question of how the money was used.

Since the launch of the campaign, the marketing of the Alma Mater has proceeded as smoothly as a well-poled Isis punt. The university appointed a campaign director, Dr Henry Drucker, a respected academic and a veteran of American college fund-raising techniques. Many of his staff have been recruited as much for their City contacts as for their marketing and fund-raising expertise.

No fewer than 115,000 Oxford alumni and thousands of 'friends' throughout the world have been asked for money. There is a staff of 64 working at offices in Oxford, New York, Tokyo and Toronto. There have been 13,625 individual donations - 11,875 from Oxford graduates, 1,000 from non-alumni and 750 from corporate bodies, including 26 gifts of more than pounds 1m. The campaign is the seventh largest charity in the UK - or would be if it were officially recognised as one. (It is still negotiating for charity status.)

Oxford graduates the world over have been remorselessly hunted down, entered into computer databases and bombarded with mailshots, glossy magazines and letters. Alumni have been corralled at cocktail parties in Kuala Lumpur and badgered over champagne breakfasts in Brisbane. Generous ones have been held up as shining examples to their less indulgent peers.

There are signs that in some cases this has led to donor fatigue: 'My wife and I gave pounds 1,200 early on and thought we had done our bit,' said one graduate who left 50 years ago. 'But that didn't stop the letters coming. We've had 11 or 12 now and we just throw them in the bin.'

The thousands of ordinary graduates, however, are not the most crucial to the appeal. 'A huge proportion of the money comes from a small number of very large gifts,' said Dr Drucker. 'We work on the basis that 95 per cent of the income is from 5 per cent of the people who give.'

After 800 years, the financial foundations of Oxford, therefore, appear to rest on the generosity of fewer than 100 wealthy individuals. Dr Drucker's trusted fund-raising staff spend much time paying court to the great, the good and the rich - millionaire businessmen, company chairmen and captains of industry.

The biggest donors, many of them otherwise undistinguished businessmen, are rewarded by 'election' to a Court of Benefactors, with the right to wear magenta ceremonial robes and to go in procession once a year through the streets of Oxford, like members of some medieval royal court, and to be greeted in Latin by the Public Orator. At present there are 55 members.

More than half the money has come from friends and graduates in foreign countries. The Vice-Chancellor and senior academics have become roving ambassadors, buttering up industrialists, government officials and wealthy alumni abroad.

The university proudly points out how many of its students have gone on to become senior politicians and heads of state in other countries. It will not, however, disclose whether Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar at University College in 1968-70, has given anything.

But the marketing razzmatazz, performed by academics more used to seminars than salesmanship, may have dented the university's reputation abroad. 'Oxford University,' reported the Washington Post, 'has a dirty little secret. It needs money.' The paper added: 'One does get the impression that the British are not used to this hat-in-hand business,' and quoted one professor admitting: 'It's not what we were brought up to do, you might say.'

Has the Campaign for Oxford changed the landscape of higher education funding for ever, introducing an element of private funding that cannot be reversed? And will Oxford, in common with other universities, have to go on passing the hat round in order to achieve academic excellence? These are questions the university will have to consider.

Among senior university staff, the emphasis has perceptibly changed. Now that money has been raised, new professorships endowed and cash set aside for new buildings and scholarships, the buzz word at the university offices is 'networking': raising Oxford's profile among influential alumni around the world.

'Raising money is only part of the story. We have built up a lot of contacts over the last four years,' said Sir Richard Southwood, the Vice-Chancellor. 'One of the greatest achievements of the campaign has been the strengthening of our links with alumni, and there is a feeling that that should continue.

'To many people abroad, Oxford has just been a name in the past. Now it is a presence. And if we are going to go on evolving, then we will have to have a network of friends in future. . . . It's not a matter of pulling strings, but of enhancing our role as a world centre of excellence.'

Dr Drucker said there were other ways of developing the university: 'We can put greater emphasis on legacies to raise money. We may focus on a smaller number of projects in future. This is a long- term game, and the campaign has got Oxford's development off to a good start.'

There is one other possibility: the university may not achieve its pounds 340m target by 1994. With pounds 100m to raise in the next two years, at the height of a recession, it may find that its golden goose has already been plucked and cooked.

Top ten published donations (many gifts have been anonymous): Bristol- Myers Squibb, pounds 20m; Monsanto, pounds 6m; Rhodes Trust, pounds 5.5m; Kellogg Foundation, pounds 4.7m; Wolfson Foundation, pounds 4.6m; Sir John Templeton, pounds 3.5m; Nissan, pounds 3.3m; Sir Run Run Shaw, pounds 3m; G D Searle & Co, pounds 3m; Rupert Murdoch, pounds 3m.

Source of gifts: companies, 30 per cent; personal foundations, 23 per cent; personal contact with benefactors, 18 per cent; institutional foundations, 14 per cent; direct-mail appeals to alumni, 7 per cent; other (includ-

ing Oxford and foreign colleges),

8 per cent.

Geographical distribution of gifts: Europe (including within UK), 48 per cent; North America, 30 per cent; Japan, 12 per cent; rest of the world, 10 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)