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The Globe and Mail

The fine art of getting from $250 to $1-billion a year

University enrollment continues to increase, but provincial governments have been pulling back their funding. The cash gaps left behind have schools across the country trying to find areas to trim. At the University of Calgary executive salaries have been frozen, the University of Victoria is stuck in salary negotiations with faculty, and students in Ontario are likely to see tuition costs rise and services decline.

Can the private sector step in where public finances are failing? Whether Queen's $500-million drive, or the University of Toronto's $2-billion goal, Canadian institutions can't hope to match the record haul Stanford University announced recently: $1-billion in one year. Still, they're trying. At the University of British Columbia, the start an evolution campaign aims to raise $1.5-billion by 2015 – and to double the number of alumni engaged with the university. Barbara Miles, the Vice-President of Development & Alumni Engagement, talked about how a university goes cap in hand.

Gifts often start small, the statistic that is often cited is that $250 donors can take as many as 13 steps to reach $1-million. Do you have a strategy not just for growing the number of donors but the amounts they give?

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We do have givers who come in first time with something very large. But generally, after a donor has given, it's not the end of the story. If a donor has given to students, with the permission of the student, we will connect the two so the donor sees the impact of their gift. It's rare the first gift is the only gift.

What is the average donation amount?

That's a very difficult one to answer. We have donors that give a seven- or eight-figures gift once in a lifetime and annual donors who give a few hundred a year. We have almost 150,000 gifts of under $25,000, 1,100 at the 6-figure level and 29 gifts at $5-million or more.

With donors, we're counting dollars; with engagement, we've come up with a system that helps track it. Every time an alumn does something, like updating their address online or serving on a board, their actions are weighted, so you may receive 1 point for updating your address.

Any trendlines in how people are engaging?

It's a bit early, but what it's telling us is that alumni want access to the riches of the university and communication about what's going at the university. You can have an event with 200 and through a podcast reach 1,000. The audience is not around the corner – 65 per cent of our audience live in the Lower Mainland but the university is spreading internationally very fast. We have chapters around the world where physical groups of alumni can get together and meet: in Hong Kong, Singapore, Calgary, New York, Beijing. We know that younger alumni want networking or career advice and older alumni are interested in intellectual content.

Are alumni in Canada or the States more likely to attribute their success to their education? We have a lot of businesses that are expecting graduates who are job ready. Are our companies more likely to connect corporate success to the quality of our education?

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I've been here for five years and at the University of Florida for 13 years before. There are some good differences. The corporate giving level is growing. It's dwindling in the States every day. They have to report to their shareholders. Here, banks and law firms have been quite generous.

In the U.S., it is second nature for students from those universities to want to stay connected and to want to give. UBC is a huge campus, many students commute: Their experience can be quite challenging, they may be on a bus for three hours a day. [So we are looking at] the student experience, whether that's more housing, or effective counselling.

On the heels of cuts to postsecondary education throughout the country, can fundraising step into those budget shortfalls?

It can happen. Donors will give money to support research areas where funding goes to salaries. But it's not something we count on...[faculties] will look at revenue from the endowment which is a fairly predictable source, they can count on 3.5 per cent as a payout from the endowment. But every donor is attached to something specific.

Many public universities in the United States take less than 10 per cent in government funding. Forty-five per cent of funding in Canada comes from the government, but a lot still has to come from other sources. Our donors rarely give to general operations; they give to a cause or something they care about.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Evolution 2.0 is a series examining the transformation of Canada's postsecondary system.

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