It was no secret that the Erasmus Trust Fund and the university were establishing an endowment fund. The university first alluded to the establishment of such a fund during the formal opening of the 2015-2016 academic year, but afterwards, and then it became quiet.
The President of the university’s Executive Board, Kristel Baele, and the Chairman of the Erasmus Trust Fund, Michiel Muller, had the following to say about this unique operation: “Dutch universities used to think that people would not donate any money to a university. But they are not donating because they haven’t been asked to.”
Lift a corner of the veil
Behind the scenes, wealthy alumni and well-known Rotterdammers and Rotterdam families have been asked for the past eighteen months whether they would be amenable to the idea of transferring some of their fortune to an endowment fund operated by the university. The idea was similar to that used one hundred years ago, when local entrepreneurs were asked to contribute money to the strengthening of the Netherlands School of Commerce, which went on to become EUR.
‘By now quite a few alumni have heard of it, so we’re expecting to see a flywheel effect, based on these first results’
It was not until January 2016 that Erasmus Trust Fund Chairman Michiel Muller was willing to lift a corner of the veil. However, the exact target amount was not allowed to be published at the time. It should be noted that this target amount has not been adjusted in the past two years; at the time, as now, the target was rumoured to be €100 million raised over a ten-year period.
Now that the first people are on board, the President of EUR’s Executive Board, Kristel Baele, feels it is time they publicised the fund. “By now quite a few alumni have heard of it, so we’re expecting to see a flywheel effect, based on these first results.”
Baele is happy with the way things are going, but is not surprised to see that the university has such a great potential for fund-raising. “EUR is actually a relatively easy university to raise funds for. We offer a wide range of research projects, many of which have a significant social component.”
But just because all the donors are very wealthy does not mean they will simply transfer some money into the university’s bank account. “No one will give even five euros to something that is useless,” Muller explains. Muller, of course, is quite well off himself, being the entrepreneur behind Tango, Route Mobiel and, more recently, the Picnic online supermarket.
“First we approached members of the Trust Fund, since we already knew them to take an interest in the university. And when the three Erasmus initiatives were drawn up, we had an exceptional good case for support,” Muller explains.
The first donor on board
Later donors who had already signed up presented them with the names of other potential donors. “The thing they all have in common is this sense that they want to give back to the institution that gave them a good education and therefore a good chance to make something of themselves. At some point in your life you’ll get to the stage where you have enough money for yourself, and you’ll want to share your wealth with others,” is how EUR President Kristel Baele sums up the donors’ motivation.
The first donor on board was former banker and former Minister for Finance Onno Ruding, 78, who was a student at the Netherlands School of Economics (one of EUR’s precursors) in the early 1960s. He provides the following explanation for his decision to donate to the fund: “Throughout my life I have benefitted a great deal from what I learned here during my degree and during my years as a PhD student. That’s why I want to do something in return.”
Ruding does not wish to disclose how much he will be donating to the fund. However, he is willing to tell us how he would like to see his donation used. “The money will be in a special fund designed to fund specific activities, whose proceeds I would like to see used for research and teaching at the Faculty of Economics – for instance, for getting a visiting professor to Rotterdam. And some of the money will be earmarked for medical research. I will not tell the university exactly what kinds of projects to use it for, but I do look forward to being kept updated on their progress.”
‘The money will be in a special fund designed to fund specific activities, whose proceeds I would like to see used for research and teaching at the Faculty of Economics’
“For a long time we all believed that the Netherlands wasn’t like America or England, and that alumni don’t donate large sums of money to universities here,” says Muller, referring to the fact that the Rotterdam endowment fund is rather unique within the Dutch educational system. “Until a representative of Oxford University’s endowment fund said to me at the celebration of the university’s centennial, ‘people aren’t donating because they’ve never been asked to.’ That was an eye opener to me. And things went from there.”
In order to give potential donors an idea of what sorts of projects their hard-earned money could be used towards, the university organised informal meetings with the professors involved in the projects and members of the board. On these occasions the professors would present their research, hoping to bring about a match between a researcher and a donor.
“No, it’s not comparable to a sales pitch,” says Muller. “It’s not difficult for scientists to tell an enthusiastic story about their research. Moreover, this was an easy way for them to obtain funding for their research. Normally they’d have to spend a large chunk of their time applying for funding for their research.”
Sometimes things happened very quickly. “We had a donor who wished to fund research on the subject of obesity. After Liesbeth van Rossum, a professor at Erasmus MC, gave a presentation on her study of obesity, we had an instant match. She could have embarked on her study that very same day if she’d wanted to,” says Muller, remembering the meeting.
But it was not just medical research that proved a hit with donors. Several philanthropists were interested in subjects such as a fair distribution of prosperity and studies of entrepreneurship. Another donor, having grown up in Africa, wanted to fund a healthcare study in Africa. “There were no two donors who wanted to support the same project,” says Baele.
Both Baele and Muller are keen to emphasise that the donors only have a say in the subject on which they wish to spend some money. They do not have a say in the actual content of the studies. “This money will not be spent on research conducted at someone else’s behest. That is called commissioned research, and we have a holding company for that,” says Baele. “This is all about the donor really wishing to contribute to high quality research carried out in the long term. This is not a way for donors to get lecture rooms and libraries named after them, either. That is done through the university at request, not through this endowment fund.” Muller adds, “Our donors trust that the university will put forward research projects that actually matter.”