Image courtesy of VU Amsterdam Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen
Reinterpreting a proud history of giving for the 21st century
If there is any university with the story to excel in fundraising, it’s VU (Vrije Universiteit, literally ‘Free University’). Founded through philanthropy in 1880, it was the first university in the Netherlands that didn’t depend on the church or the state. What’s more, its history is rooted in charitable giving and an appeal to a wider, national audience: the ‘reformed’ protestant population. Throughout the 20th century, thousands of families among the “kleyne luyden” (‘common people’) collected “stuyvers and dubbeltjes” (‘nickels and dimes’) in their iconic green tins to support a free university that was accessible to all.
Yet in the last two decades, fundraising had fallen from favour. As VU President Mirjam van Praag puts it: “We were at point zero. We didn’t ‘do’ fundraising, it wasn’t seen as a priority. Our alumni are extremely important to us, and yet we had no dedicated alumni and fundraising department.” A new executive board recognised the huge potential to harness their history and the generosity of their traditional audiences. They knew that philanthropy could help to drive excellence across the institution, beyond what was possible with government funding.
Bringing people together
Enter Maarten Vervaat, a fundraising expert steeped in making change happen for institutions across Europe. Working alongside More colleague Siôn Lutley, Maarten got to work quickly. He wanted to find out why their previous fundraising efforts had failed, and what they needed to ensure future efforts had the best chance of success. Their comprehensive internal review took in some 40 interviews with people from across the institution, including members of the executive board, faculty deans, key academics and representatives from communications: “We wanted to get a feel for their ambitions and their story, and the people who can make it happen. We wanted to co-create a roadmap for how to get to where they wanted to go.”
VU already had in place a compelling and authentic strategy which senior staff believed in, and which had relevance for society – “a key ingredient for stellar fundraising,” as Maarten puts it. “I was also impressed by their flexibility to adapt – the people I spoke to had enormous energy and enthusiasm to make fundraising work, rather than dwelling on the past.” By the same token, Mirjam and others were impressed with the speed with which Maarten was able to build a rapport with the people involved: “He convinced everyone that this work was vitally important, and they quickly trusted his ability to advise us. He was an incredible advocate for change, and knew all the steps that needed to be taken.”
Creating the roadmap
One of those next steps was to set out the plan for establishing a successful fundraising operation across the institution. Key recommendations included: setting up a new department for university relations and fundraising team; recruiting an experienced director to support the board and the academics; and working more closely with the VU Association, the university’s founding member organisation. Maarten: “I also wanted to encourage them to think beyond fundraising and to integrate their external engagement more generally, whether with corporates, alumni or local communities.” Finally, they needed to hone a story aligned with their strategy and, with the help of More writer Ben Beaumont, create a case for support they could take to potential donors. “This was a fundamental in helping us start up fundraising,” says Mirjam.
Putting words into action
It’s one thing to write a plan, but another to make it happen. As it takes time to create a new department and recruit its director, VU invited Maarten to be the interim manager who put the words into action. As a Dutch speaker with a range of international experience, he was able to very quickly create the new department and define how it works with other teams across the organisation, as well as recruiting staff and setting up a plan for the first year. “He achieved things here that nobody had achieved before,” adds Mirjam. “Very quickly, he knew his way around and how to walk and talk so he became one of us. He knew how to manage our idiosyncrasies and how to create a culture change.”
With Maarten’s interim management over, the organisation now has a renewed confidence and energy for fundraising, with a new team and director ready to reinterpret their proud history of giving for the 21st century. “We have a change in mindset, we have a fund to build, we have the story to tell,” says Mirjam. “Everything is ready to take off.”
What they say
Working with More Partnership and with Maarten was a pleasure. He is results-oriented and he makes stuff happen without being pushy. This can sometimes be challenging in a university environment where people are used to only taking steps that everyone agrees with. Yet without giving up on this democracy, Maarten made rapid progress. He also blended in easily. He didn’t feel like an external consultant, he felt like a VU colleague. This combination is important; he could use his distance from the organisation to do things differently so that we made progress, but he still felt like one of us.
Mirjam van Praag
President, VU Amsterdam
What we say
Everyone at VU was up for the challenge. I was really impressed by the distinctive culture of collaboration within VU; the shared ambition and momentum for change were an inspiration. This was key because we needed to go beyond fundraising to broader organisational and cultural change. Working together, we were able to rally key stakeholders behind this vision. What they have now is the building blocks of an engagement programme that will help build stronger relationships with donors, alumni, companies and their communities.
Partner, More Partnership
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