Michelle Calvert: University challenge is how to say thanks

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GIVEN that Leeds University’s last fundraising drive was back in 1925, our decision to start a campaign was a step into the unknown.

We knew that many former students have warm memories of their time at Leeds and that local people valued the work of the university, not to mention that many Yorkshire charities have supported our work over the years. Even so, setting a goal of £60m was an ambitious step.

We are now three-quarters of the way there. Alumni have welcomed the opportunity to give something back to an institution which helped shape their lives. And for many in Yorkshire, including those with no previous connection to the university, the campaign is enabling them to support work which is making a tangible difference in the local community.

We have had some astonishing gifts – £9m towards our new library, £2.5m to establish research fellowships – but just as important have been the more modest donations from over 11,000 people worldwide.

These funds aren’t just sitting in the bank, they are making great things happen. The campaign is enabling donors to directly support our work on topics close to their own heart, whether contributing to the cultural vibrancy of the region or driving forward the work of research teams at the cutting edge of engineering, science and medicine.

Our expertise in cancer, arthritis and heart disease is world-renowned. The fact that many of our researchers in these areas are also clinicians working with patients at local hospitals means that Yorkshire people benefit from their up-to-the-minute expertise.

And with support from the campaign, our academics are developing potential new treatments. One Yorkshire philanthropist is supporting research to develop a virus which could ultimately deliver a targeted treatment for cancer; a gift from another Leeds donor allowed us to build a super-resolution microscope to examine the processes at work in heart disease and dementia. Donations such as these hasten the day we find a cure.

Across the campus our campaign has brought together our academic strength and donors’ generosity to tackle some of the great challenges of our time – preventing flooding and combating drought, developing the renewable energy needed by a world reliant on fossil fuels and addressing the problem of food security.

These global challenges strike a particular chord with many of our donors, as does the opportunity to support the next generation. Take our young entrepreneurs. Many students have great business ideas but lack the know-how to make a success of them in a competitive world.

The campaign provides small grants to develop their ideas and test them in the marketplace, and advice from local experts in marketing, law, finance and sales gives these students the skills to succeed.

It’s not just entrepreneurs. The campaign is enabling students to stretch themselves wherever their talent lies to ensures they emerge as able, rounded graduates ready for the challenges of the world beyond campus.

Sadly, for some young people the challenges start much earlier. We know that many from disadvantaged backgrounds might never consider higher education, or believe themselves able to achieve a place at university. Gifts of over £1.5m from local supporters and alumni donors are enabling us to work with thousands of young people in schools and communities across Yorkshire, to raise aspirations and encourage them to aim high. Thousands of other donors contribute to scholarships to ensure that financial background should never prevent those with sufficient ability from studying at Leeds.

Perhaps the 10 local doctors who each gave £5 to establish Leeds Medical School and the Victorian Lord Mayor who founded Yorkshire College of Science were similarly driven. By the time the two institutions had become the University of Leeds in 1904, hundreds more local people had given their support, galvanised by an appeal to civic pride.

Some still question why universities raise funds. But when I see the enormous benefits which our partnership with donors is bringing to our research, our students and to our community, I would turn the question around – why wouldn’t we do more?

• Michelle Calvert is director of development at the University of Leeds. www.campaign.leeds.ac.uk