Irish universities look to graduates for funds as Atlantic goes west

Philanthropist Charles F. “ Chuck “ Feeney being conferred an Honorary Degree jointly by the Universities of Ireland North and South at a ceremony in Dublin Castle.Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

Philanthropist Charles F. “ Chuck “ Feeney being conferred an Honorary Degree jointly by the Universities of Ireland North and South at a ceremony in Dublin Castle.Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 02:00

Last year University of Limerick expressed its gratitude to the billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney, who helped to build the campus, the sports arena, the library, student and staff accommodation, professorships, scholarships and research laboratories. Atlantic Philanthropies, which has contributed €1.25 billion to projects in Ireland, many in higher education, announced it would wind down its Irish operations in 2016.

In an age of austerity it’s hard to see where the next fairy godparent is going to come from, so is this the end of large scale philanthropy in Irish higher education?

Maybe, but a new era of philanthropy is emerging, with the emphasis on “friend-raising” rather than fundraising. The inputs may be more modest, but the benefactors are great in number, according to David Cronin of the UL Foundation.

“This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the foundation and, of the €200 million raised overall, a quarter has come in in the past five years,” says Cronin. “Philanthropy is not a historical thing, it still plays a significant role in universities achieving their ambitions.”

While Atlantic Philanthropies will be missed in Ireland, Cronin hopes this evolving sector will continue to be an important funding source, as long as universities are agile and creative in gathering it in.

“Apart from the money, one of the great gifts that Chuck Feeney gave to us was leadership,” he says. “He has been an exemplar and his influence will continue to reverberate for generations. Now it falls to us to realise what Bill Clinton has described as the ‘democratisation of giving’ – opening philanthropy up to everyone.”

The idea of crowdsourcing, raising funds for projects by gathering multiple small donations through social networks, is not unlike what Irish higher institutions now have in mind. All the universities are putting resources into building alumni networks and calling on graduates to invest in the alma mater. It’s a model that has long served US higher education, but it’s relatively new here.

Lifetime of giving’
Nick Sparrow, director of the Trinity Foundation, says the 400-year-old university is now building the notion of a “lifetime of support” among its graduates, starting the day they walk in the door.

“Like so many private universities in the US, we are trying to foster an understanding that from the day you start your undergraduate degree you are part of a class and will contribute throughout your life. Not every alumnus contributes in the US, but they do not consider it ridiculous to be asked to contribute. In Ireland we are finally at the stage where we can talk to alumni about our funding needs. There is an awareness that the Government can’t fund all projects. It’s exciting that it is at last a legitimate conversation to have with a graduate from Ireland. Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible.”

We’ve a long way to go before graduate giving reaches the value of the Glucksman or Feeney bequests. However, in the past 10 years, 10 per cent of all contactable Trinity graduates have made some sort of gift to the university. Although many are small, they have worth beyond face value, says Sparrow.

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