Europe’s universities failing to tap philanthropists for R&D funding

07 Jun 2011 | News
Very few of Europe’s universities are taking philanthropic fundraising seriously, and even fewer use this source to fund research

Philanthropic fundraising is not taken seriously in European universities, with only a very small number of institutions raising significant sums of money from this source, and even fewer accessing philanthropic funding to pay for research, according to a new study which is the first to gather data from across the EU.

The authors say the headline finding may be disappointing for those hoping that private donors can represent an important source of funding for university-based research. But the lack of attention universities have paid to attracting philanthropic donations to date may also be interpreted in the more positive light that this is a significant untapped source of funds.

The study, commissioned by the Research Directorate-General of the European Commission, follows on from work published in two previous reports, ‘Giving More for Research’ (2006) and ‘Engaging Philanthropy for University Research’ (2008). The purpose was to examine the current status of fundraising from philanthropy for research in European universities and to explore the extent of any untapped philanthropic potential.

European universities have widely differing reputations and this affects their likelihood of generating philanthropic income. The research demonstrates that success in fundraising is related to institutional privilege - what kind of a university it is, in terms of wealth, reputation and pre-existing relationships with different types of donors - as well as to the efforts made by universities - what the university does in terms of fundraising activities - and environmental factors - where the university is located in terms of the geo-political context.

For this reason, the report suggests that the concept of ‘accumulative advantage’ should be understood as an important factor, alongside ‘efforts’ and ‘context’ which have so far featured more prominently as key levers in studies of this form of philanthropic giving.

The higher education sector in Europe is undergoing rapid change. Universities are struggling to meet increased demand for mass higher education and to adapt to transformations in the global knowledge economy, at the same time as they are dealing with the repercussions of the recession of 2008-10.

The inevitable cuts in public expenditure mean European universities are coming under increased pressure to take on more responsibility for their long-term financial sustainability. The report seeks to identify success factors behind those universities that do attract philanthropic giving, which could be emulated by other universities.

The findings are based on a survey of 164 universities in 24 of the 27 members of the EU.  The response rate of 15.7 per cent was far lower than the authors hoped for and they suggest the difficulties they encountered in gathering data can be viewed as a contribution to understanding in this field. For example, it was hard to indentify an appropriate contact person at almost half of the institutions, speaking volumes about the lack of any relevant fundraising activity.

And the authors say, “Where contacts were identified, the subsequent challenge in persuading them to complete the survey may also be interpreted as indicative of the importance with which this area of activity is viewed within many European universities.”

Giving in evidence: Fundraising from philanthropy in European universities

By Beth Breeze and Iain Wilkinson of the University of Kent, UK, and Barbara Gouwenberg and Theo Schuyt of VU University Amsterdam, Netherlands

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