BBC Radio 4 currently have available on their I-Player an edition of The Report which investigates the implications of overseas donations to British universities and the ethical minefield these donations can create.  It is a interesting programme that looks at whether accepting donations from oppressive regimes can ever be right and points to recent controversial examples at the London School of Economics and Durham University. It also references a report from the Centre for Social Cohesion, published in 2009 which examined the influence of donors on universities though it does point out that this report does not always back up its claims with concrete evidence.  A campaign called the Clean Cash Campaign is referred to which is trying to encourage universities to make a public pledge not to accept donations from repressive regimes or donors seeking to exert undue influence on the work of the recipient university. It is perhaps telling that the Clean Cash website does not have a list of universities who have taken this pledge.

Several of the academics interviewed, stress that engagement with these regimes is important but acknowledge that if this involves accepting their money then the relationship can be fraught with difficulties.

This is an issue which is gathering momentum in the media and one which universities cannot ignore. The increasing professionalism of university fundraising in recent years can only be a good thing and as fundraising integrates with the wider activities of the university these pressing issues will come increasingly to the fore. Universities must grasp the nettle and develop robust policies around gift acceptance, implementation and the stewardship of donors to ensure that their expectations are realistic and ethically sound.

Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University and an advocate of philanthropy in higher education, talks on the programme about Bristol’s own procedures. Potentially controversial donations are presented to an independent group of assessors who can objectively assess the implications of the gift and the suitability of the donor. A quick Google reveals many other examples of policies such as:

CASE Europe have also published some guidance in this area which universities may find helpful.

‘Bad press’ stories such as those surrounding the donations to LSE by the Gadaffi family can only tarnish higher education philanthropy and diminish it in the eyes of prospective donors. It would be interesting to know whether or not telephone fundraisers are encountering questions from alumni about their university’s policies in this area as these issues are brought to the attention of the general public. Transparency, strong ethical frameworks, independent decision making by objective adjudicators, and rigorous stewardship should all be hallmarks of a gift acceptance policy.

Gift acceptance policies should not be written and then shelved but should be at the finger tips of every effective fundraiser. They need to be included in the induction and training of ALL new staff  (not just the fundraisers) and regularly reviewed to ensure that they remain relevant and effective. Above all, they should be enforced.