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A step into the unknown

 September 8, 2014 | Simon Jenkins

As the University of Leeds fundraising campaign tops £45m, in this comment article for the Yorkshire Post, Director of Development Michelle Calvert reflects on the generosity of donors – and the benefits their gifts are bringing to the University, the Yorkshire community and the wider world.

GIVEN that the 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 alumni – our former students – have warm memories of their time at Leeds and still hold the institution in high regard. Some had told us how their successful careers derived directly from their studies here. We also knew that many local people valued the work of the University, and 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.

Just as we hoped, 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 Jimmy’s, LGI and Chapel Allerton 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.

These are just two examples. Across the campus our Campaign has brought together our academic strength and donors’ generosity to tackle some of the great challenges of our times – 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 two strands of support: small grants to develop their ideas and test them in the marketplace; the advice of local experts in marketing, law, finance and sales give these students the skills to succeed.

Students like Alice Colligan, whose colourful teepees are proving a popular reading corner for children, or the recent medical graduate who has developed a new device to treat nosebleeds. The Campaign is helping these and other aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and in doing so create jobs and prosperity for others.

It’s not just entrepreneurs. The Campaign is enabling students to stretch themselves wherever their talent lies – like the artists and sculptors supported from the estate of Hugh Berkofsky of Moortown, whose legacy will help creative young people develop their careers. Further support for researchers, athletes and community volunteers ensures our students emerge as able, rounded graduates whose experiences fit them 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 ten 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.

Archive film, recently uncovered, sets out the noble aims of the 1925 campaign, launched by the Duke of York, later King George VI

“Men and women of Leeds and of Yorkshire, help to make the University worthy of its great tasks, worthy of its great achievements, worthy of your great county.”

The appeal raised £300,000, around £10m in today’s prices. Almost 90 years on, the figures may be bigger, but the broad aims remain the same.

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?

A step into the unknown