Education: Giving philanthropy the name it deserves

Universities find it hard to persuade wealthy donors to put their names on buildings

Michael Smurfit's got one. So too Peter Sutherland and Martin Naughton, one of Ireland's richest men. Denis O'Brien has got one also, and what's more his is bigger than Sir Anthony O'Reilly's – just a stone's throw away on the grounds of University College Dublin.

So why can't I have one? In its wisdom, The Irish Times thought: "How hard can it be to get a building named after yourself or your family on a college campus?"

“It’s not a click-and-buy situation,” one university spokesperson replied coolly. “In the past, all you’d be asked for was a cheque and your name would go up on the door, but now we’re trying to build life-long commitments, and that’s something donors are interested in too.”

Institutions are reluctant to talk figures but say a donor would need to be funding at least 20 per cent of a project before it would carry his name (and it generally is “his” at present).


NUI Galway president Prof Jim Browne puts the allocation higher, saying "typically about one third would be covered by the donor; in some cases it would be more." However, he stresses that, contrary to some perceptions, "it's very difficult to persuade people to put their name on a building. In the US, it's very different, and that may be partly because of the culture or it may be because philanthropy is underdeveloped here."

He recalls trying to persuade a donor recently to go public “but he refused to be recognised. I said, ‘It’s not your ego we are playing to here but you are setting an example; you are putting it up to your peers. It’s not simply recognising you.’ It didn’t work in that particular instance but we should encourage people to be recognised.”

An early philanthropic entrant to the sector was Smurfit who in 1991 donated half of the initial £3 million building cost for the UCD business school in Blackrock, Co Dublin. The Monaco resident has continued to support the college along with friends and peers, including Denis O'Brien who gave £3 million to the school in the late 1990s.

Science building
More recently, O'Brien and his wife Catherine were the largest contributors to a €26 million fund of private donations for the construction of UCD's newest science building. The €100 million development was opened last October, and constitutes the second phase of a three-part development of the O'Brien Centre for Science.

Other major donors to the project included George and Angela Moore; Eddie and Hildegarde O'Connor; Thomas and Deirdre Lynch; Dr Cormac and Anne Kilty; Jim and Mary Flavin; and Shay Garvey.

At Trinity College Dublin, it is Naughton who plays the role of a fairy godfather. The Glen Dimplex chairman donated €5 million to help establish its CRANN nanoscience facility which is housed, along with the Science Gallery, in the Naughton Institute.

Sutherland, the former attorney general who is now chairman of Goldman Sachs International, has made a recent impact in the philanthropic field. He has given an estimated €4 million towards the building of the new UCD school of law which is named after him, and a further €1 million to establishing an academic post.

Securing funding for such posts can be difficult, says Browne. “In the Irish system, you have tenure from day one. A chair will cost €200,000 per year with PSRI, office space and everything else thrown in.”

The size of some endowments to US universities means the scope for donor funding of professorships is greater, although, says Browne, “we have not really gone after it; our focus has been on the capital programme.”

Professional networker and fundraiser Kingsley Aitkins sees major potential for growth in private giving in Ireland but believes higher level institutions need to get organised.

"Despite the economy, there is a core of very wealthy people who are going to have to face that choice of what to do with their wealth. As Chuck Feeney says, 'There ain't no roof-rack on a hearse'."

He says “the road map is there” for Irish third-level institutions but “we need to put the foot on the gas”. A university such as Harvard would have 700 people in fundraising, “and they don’t call it fundraising, they call it development”, he says.

“It needs a catalyst, either an extraordinarily generous donor who is willing to invest to build capacity in fundraising, which is perhaps unlikely, or you are going to need institutions to gear up.”

Regarding the naming of buildings or professorships after donors, he says: “People are less comfortable in European countries where there is less of a tradition of that. But the important thing is that it actually happens.” Given the state of exchequer finances, “the only people who can pick up the slack are either high-wealth individuals or the corporate sector.”

The Humphreys Institute is on hold for now, although there was a slightly more encouraging response beyond the university sector. “Anyone coming in with cash would be entertained,” a senior administrator in one Institute of Technology replied, when asked about naming rights. “€100,000 might get you something. In fairness, 10c would get you an audience in the current climate.”