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A culture of philanthropy takes root in Quebec’s francophone universities

A culture of philanthropy takes root in Quebec’s francophone universities.

BY MARIE LAMBERT-CHAN | DEC 04 2013

Five hundred million dollars. This figure represents Université de Montréal’s ambitious objective for its major fundraising campaign, undoubtedly the loftiest goal in the history of Quebec’s francophone universities. For its part, the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières collected $27 million in donations, $7 million more than its target; and Université de Sherbrooke expects to exceed its internal fundraising campaign objective of $10 million, or fully 40 percent more than the sum of donations collected only five years ago.

While philanthropy appears to be gaining traction within francophone universities in Quebec, the success of these efforts still pales in comparison with the campaigns at anglophone universities. In its seven-year campaign that ended last June, McGill University raised more than a billion dollars, and the University of Toronto’s current fundraising campaign is on track to amass twice as much.

“These are spectacular figures,” said John Parisella, executive director of Campus Montréal, the major, joint fundraising campaign launched by Université de Montréal and its affiliates, HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal.

“However, these institutions are older than ours, so their philanthropic traditions are more firmly rooted. While we may have some catching up to do, francophone universities are in the process of changing their approach,” continued Mr. Parisella, who worked as a volunteer for Concordia University’s millennial fundraising campaign from 1995 to 2000.

Those eager to witness this sea change at francophone universities may need to be patient, however, as philanthropic giving remains a work in progress in every sector of Quebec life. According to Statistics Canada, Quebecers’ average charitable donations amounted to $208 in 2010, well below the Canadian average of $446. Moreover, only one percent of funds gathered for charitable purposes were earmarked for universities and colleges.

There are many explanations for this disengagement. “Quebecers generally rely on the government to fund services such as health and education,” noted Daniel Lapointe, author of a Quebec guide book on fundraising management (La gestion philanthropique: guide pratique pour la collecte de fonds).

Perhaps Quebecers donate less to universities because fewer of them attended. The participation rate of university-aged Quebec residents today is about 23 percent, slightly lower than the 26-percent rate for Canada as a whole. Although some see this as a taboo subject, other observers say this notion bears scrutiny.

“We have not done enough to convince the public that education is important,” said Jacques Bégin, director of UQTR’s department for partnerships and support for university development. “People donate more to the health-care sector because they feel that conquering disease is a legitimate challenge. We need to advocate for the power of education.” He said he encou-rages donors to split their donations: “one-third to cover immediate health care challenges, and two-thirds towards education and training for new physicians and nurses … so that all of us will benefit in the future.”

Since Quebecers donate less, university foundations increasingly have turned towards the business community.  At UQTR, corporate donations account for 90 percent of all funds raised, said Mr. Bégin. During Université du Québec à Montréal’s most recent campaign, this proportion stood at 84 percent.

“Some companies are so heavily solicited that they have reached the saturation point,” said the author Mr. Lapointe. “We have to increase our focus on individuals.” Diane Veilleux, director of the UQAM Foundation, is well aware of this fact: “Our primary objective is to increase our donor base, even if individual donations are smaller.”

At UQTR, this strategic shift has become critical as a result of the economic downturn affecting the area. “Corporate donations are down,” noted Mr. Bégin, a proponent of crowd-funding strategies. “I want to offer graduates an option where they donate $10 a month. It doesn’t sound like much, but if I can convince 20 percent of them to do that, I would raise over a million dollars by the end of the year.”

There is a consensus that to increase donations, a university needs to foster a sense of belonging to the alma mater before students graduate. It is a concept that McGill has long understood. “From the moment classes begin in the fall, we organize activities for new students to foster loyalty to the institution,” said Marc Weinstein, vice-principal, development and alumni relations at McGill. “Undergraduate studies are a great time to begin this process because students are creating lifelong memories.”

Francophone university foundations and their alumni associations are slowly but surely implementing this kind of approach.  At UQTR, students receive a passport in which they can accumulate stamps by attending a variety of campus activities, reinforcing their sense of belonging.

Three years ago, directors and senior administrators at Université de Sherbrooke attended a seminar on the ways that their personal involvement contributes to nurturing a culture of philanthropy. “Students will always remember the positive interactions they had with administrators and professors during their university studies,” said the university’s foundation director, François Dubé.

From Mr. Lapointe’s perspective, these initiatives should pay off. “Fifty years ago, who would have imagined that francophones would wield the balance of economic power in Quebec? Yet, that’s the reality today. Francophone universities will catch up to English universities one day. We just need to give ourselves a long, long time.”

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