Skip to main content

Queen's University is reaching out to its famously faithful alumni, officially launching a $500-million fundraising campaign on Saturday at an event emceed by graduate and CNN anchor Ali Velshi.

The campaign has quietly been under way for years, as is typical, and has already raised nearly $300-million – or 59 per cent of the total. The aim is to reach the target by 2016, the school's 175th anniversary, and to secure promises of another $100-million in planned estate giving.

Despite a harsh fundraising climate, Queen's is only the latest of several Canadian universities to launch their biggest-ever campaigns. The much-larger University of Toronto is in the midst of raising $2-billion, while the University of British Columbia recently announced a $1.5-billion goal. The new campaign at Queen's is nearly twice the size of the previous one, which wrapped up in 2003. Raising money for a proposed student life and wellness centre is a key goal. In the past two years, Queen's has been a prominent voice on issues of student health – and particularly mental health – after a series of student deaths, some of which were acknowledged to have been suicides.

"That's certainly something that's very, very important to us," provost Alan Harrison said, noting the new facility would be a centrepiece of ongoing efforts "to build the supportive environment around [students], so that they always have someone to turn to if they need help."

But after building a costly student and athletics centre, Queen's plans to use more of the funds to enhance the student experience and less for capital spending than in recent years. A central priority will be boosting the endowment for student support in the form of scholarships and bursaries based on need and merit by up to $80-million. And Queen's will look to expand newer experiments such as the Innovation and Global Leadership Initiative, a program jointly hosted this year by the faculties of engineering and business, which gave 20 students $7,000 each to spend the summer getting a hands-on education in entrepreneurship.

"There's a program that we want to grow," Dr. Harrison said. "We want to make it a stronger program that will eventually lead to a credit-based graduate certificate, and a degree."

Although Queen's took in a disappointing $43-million last year, the pace of giving has rebounded and it expects to receive between $50-million and $60-million this year, even as donors with floundering stock portfolios remain wary.

"I think that the environment is negative because there's less wealth and less capital gains, [which is] to some degree offset by, I think, a pretty robust commitment to philanthropic giving by Canadians," said Gord Nixon, chair of the Queen's campaign and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada.

Even as principal Daniel Woolf noted in an internal letter leaked in 2011 that the university's renowned undergraduate experience faces challenges, the fervent pride of many alumni remains the school's greatest fund-raising asset – 80 per cent of donated dollars come from people who attended Queen's. One of the most recent major gifts came from long-time donors Alfred and Isabel Bader, who gave $9-million last year – and $31-million total – toward the construction of a new centre for performing arts. Mr. Bader studied chemistry and history at Queen's in the 1940s.

At the same time, the university does not have the same access to large gifts from those with no past ties as schools in major cities do.

University fund-raising campaigns are expected to continue growing more ambitious. With government funds devoted largely to schools' core operations, universities are looking to wealthy donors to fund the kinds of improvements that can set them apart, Mr. Nixon said.

"The universities that have the ability to manage those campaigns are going to be world leaders," he said. "And those that aren't, it's going to be much tougher."