News - November 3, 2011

The great donor show

With 7 million euros in donations, Wageningen has suddenly become Holland's most successful academic fundraiser. For the simple reason that the university holds its cap out.

It takes place on sailing boats, golf courses, and before or after meetings. ‘Do you have a moment to spare?' Daan van Doorn asks a well-heeled acquaintance. They then go and sit somewhere quiet or make an appointment at the moneyed person's home, where Van Doorn talks about some ground-breaking Wageningen research which could help reduce the world food supply problem.
Van Doorn, alumnus and ex-executive at meat processer Vion, is one of the six members of the Wageningen fundraising committee. These six entrepreneurs are well-placed to get the well-to-do individuals in their network interested in Wageningen research. They include: Karel Vuursteen (former CEO at Heineken) and George Lubbe (ex-executive at Nutreco).
This group is the Wageningen University Fund's trump card. About a year ago, the fund launched a campaign called Food for Thought in the hope of increasing funding from individual private donations. They succeeded - and how. The Wageningen University Fund (WUF) used to be happy if they got about half a million a year. One year after the launch of Food for Thought, the tally stands at 7,094,790 euros.
No other Dutch university fund can match this success: the Leiden University Fund comes the closest with 3.2 million. The Wageningen approach is distinctive on four counts.
1. Just ask
The most prosaic difference is simply that Wageningen asks for funding. Amsterdam-based professor of Philanthropy once researched what makes people give. At the top of the list he came up with was: because they are asked. And in this case, potential donors are asked by their peers, well-off top entrepreneurs with status and respect.
2. That ‘Wageningen feeling'
People who studied in Amsterdam have a closer bond with the city than with the university. Wageningen alumni, however, do tend to have a strong bond with their alma mater. The university is small and the subject areas well-defined. Many donors, especially the smaller ones, studied here themselves and say they have a ‘Wageningen feeling'.
3. For concrete solutions
‘We raise fund for the solutions and not just for the knowledge', explains Monique Montenaire of the Wageningen University Fund. ‘Research is not an end in itself here, but a means to an end.' Here we see the familiar Wageningen solution-oriented approach again. Montenaire formulated nine concrete projects, working with professors, ‘ambassadors' and the executive board. The criteria were: cutting edge research that is dependent on donations, is done by distinguished researchers, and is expected to lead to a breakthrough which government or companies can do something with.
4. Direct contact
If someone gives a couple of million euros, they want to know what is done with it. So major donors want direct contact with the researcher. They are offered a guided tour of the laboratory and the researcher updates them regularly on the progress. No interference is allowed: this is and remains genuine science. Donors are welcome to take a look in the kitchen but not to stir the pots.
The donors of 2011
3.2 million. From the Comon foundation, funded by a private individual whose fortune came from importing cars and machinery. The gift is for Willem Takken's research on non-toxic malaria mosquito traps.
2.5 million. From a retired business executive who looked in vain for a job with a social focus at the end of his career. In the end he accepted a commercial post, and he is now putting the money he made from it into Prem Bindraban's research on water-efficient rice cultivation, and Francine Govers' search for the weak spot of the potato pathogen Phytophtora.
Middle-sized donation. From the mixed feed company De Heus, which celebrates its 100th year this year. For Oene Oenema's research on the recycling of phosphate and Bram Huisman's research on African entrepreneurship.
About 40 smaller donations of between 500 and 80,000 euros, from foundations, companies and private individuals.