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At smaller universities, fundraising is a challenge of scale, not technique

With a limited alumni pool and resources, small- and medium-sized universities leverage personal connections to find donors.

By BRIAN OWENS | FEB 08 2017

In fundraising, it’s the personal relationships that matter, says Susan Montague, senior campaign advisor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “People give to people.”

Those personal relationships will be vital in the coming months, she says. In December, UNB launched its latest major fundraising campaign – the largest in its history – seeking $110 million to boost scholarships and bursaries, improve facilities and support research. The campaign has already secured $77 million in pledges and has set a deadline of April 2018 to meet its target. And, for the first time, the university will be relying solely on private donations; previous campaigns relied on the provincial government kicking in around 20 percent of the total.

Of course, those relationships are no less important at big institutions. “It doesn’t matter the size of the alumni association,” says Deb Comuzzi, vice-president, external relations, at Lakehead University. University of Toronto, for example may have more alumni, “but we all use the same techniques,” she says.

The difference is one of scale, says Ms. Montague. UNB has around 80,000 alumni, a much smaller constituency to draw on than the big universities like McGill or the University of British Columbia. “Our alumni are always supportive, but we don’t have the sheer numbers,” she says. “There are fewer who are in a position to make a significant gift.”

Though the number of alumni may be small, many of them have gone on to hold important positions and can use their networks to increase the university’s reach. Université de Moncton recently launched a $50-million fundraising campaign with two former New Brunswick premiers as co-chairs. “When you have people like that, they have a large network in a small province,” says Linda Schofield, the university’s fundraising director. “It’s proportionally as big as someone from a bigger university elsewhere in Canada.”

Students head to campus on a snowy morning at Université de Moncton. The university has fostered the Acadian community and culture since the university was founded in 1963, says its fundraising director. Photo courtesy of Université de Moncton.

At UNB, Allison McCain, chairman of McCain Foods and the university’s chancellor, used his personal and business connections with Scotiabank to secure a $1-million commitment to support study abroad programs.

Smaller institutions also face a difference in the perception of potential donors. Because of the size and reputation of U of T, people feel that it is appropriate that the university asks for billions of dollars in a fundraising drive. “People’s sense of what is appropriate to give UNB is more modest,” says Ms. Montague.

The advantage that smaller universities do have, though, is often a much closer personal connection between their alumni and the school. Smaller campuses and class sizes provide an opportunity for a tighter bond with the faculty and the institution. Ms. Comuzzi tells the story of a faculty dean tapping a student on the shoulder in the cafeteria, to gently admonish them for missing class. “The student will remember that when we go back to build a relationship with them,” she says.

That’s something that is harder to foster at a large institution. “I suspect that people who have thousands more classmates find it harder to have that deep personal experience,” says Ms. Montague. “At a smaller university you can feel more at home. It makes a difference.”

And smaller universities can forge deeper connections with their local communities as well. Ms. Schofield says U de Moncton has fostered the Acadian community and culture since the university was founded in 1963. “Our university probably had the biggest impact of any university in Canada on the development of its own community,” she says. “It really transformed the Acadian population in New Brunswick, and the province as a whole.”

So the alumni understand the importance of supporting the university in that role, she continues. “They recognise the important part the university played in enhancing their life and community.”

With fewer donors to draw on, it becomes even more important to maintain good relationships with those who give. Ms. Montague, Ms. Comuzzi and Ms. Schofield all stress the importance of thanking donors and letting them know the impact of their gift. “We can strive to do the best job in the country in stewardship,” says Ms. Montague.

Ms. Comuzzi says that Lakehead, for example, ensures that the recipients of scholarships and bursaries know where the money came from, and makes sure the students meet and keep in touch with the people who helped them through school.

Though smaller universities may have more modest targets than U of T’s $2.4-billion goal, these are growing rapidly. And Ms. Montague expects that growth will continue in future campaigns.

“My first campaign at UNB, in the 1980s, was for $10 million,” she says. “We’ve seen tremendous growth since then.”

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