Winders: Campaign eyes future realities

We know we’re not going to ‘out wow’ them with raw numbers.

This week, Western launched its refocused fundraising campaign with hopes of raising $750 million by 2018. Independently, that’s impressive. In this economic climate, I don’t see how you can downplay a number so deep into the nine digits.

Too bad the announcement came on the heels of the University of British Columbia launching a $1.5 billion campaign in September and the University of Toronto launching a $2 billion campaign over the weekend. The shadow cast by that pair sort of ‘out wow’ us a bit, if you’re into such things.

And, like it or not, people are.

Our folks asked as much at this week’s Leadership Forum, which served as a sort-of campaign event with key volunteers and donors mixed into a room of university leaders. When the question came from the floor, you could see the administration’s team knew it was coming.

It’s just too hard to avoid those big, splashy numbers.

But let’s pause before we get too excited, because what lies behind those numbers matters far more than the numbers themselves.

We’ve heard our leadership team say just that in recent days. And I think they are correct.

Public funding priorities are shifting. We all know that. Higher education still gets good lip-service, but what started as a gradual shift in priorities has been exacerbated by the financial crisis.

As the Baby Boomers refuse to die, er, continue to age, their insatiable appetite for attention will continue to drain the public coffers. Always has been; always will be.

To give you an idea of the competition, the typical U.S. household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35, according to a Pew Research Centre study released last week. Sure, people accumulate more as they age. But this gap is double the 2005 rate and nearly five-fold the 10-to-1 disparity from the mid-1980s.

Now, tell me who wins the funding battle between health care, the new Baby Boomer rally cry, and higher education for the next two decades.

With that in mind, Western is taking the smart path with this campaign.

Kevin Goldthorp, vice-president, external, speaks about watching provincial support drop from 90 per cent when he was in school to 47 per cent for today’s students. “It’s all about who funds higher education,” Goldthorp says.

And that’s the feeling you get from the priorities of this campaign.

Nearly 60 per cent of the goal is focused on student scholarships and programs. That’s a whole new way of thinking, and it grows more and more necessary every day.

Forget about the ‘wow factor’; students need a ‘now factor.’

And Western seems to be providing it.

I am a fan of doubling down on the Western Experience. As squishy a phrase as it is, I buy into it as a rally point. I have experienced it as a student, and now as a staffer. And there is something there; we just need to articulate it better.

Student support goes a long way toward that Experience.

At that same forum, Goldthorp called big numbers ‘ego driven,’ and explained Western’s campaign is more mission focused than numbers driven. All in all, he considers it a “bold and aggressive” goal.

And, if you take what the campaign wants to accomplish into consideration with how much it wants to raise, he is right.

We are not fighting the future, pounding our fists saying, ‘That’s not fair,’ which it is not. We are nodding to reality and adjusting our tactics, not an easy thing for a conservative organization to do.

So you gotta hand it to the team who put this campaign together.

Will it work? I don’t know. That’s for our colleagues to execute on the ground in a very tough environment. But it seems like the right plan.

And if it works, it’ll be a ‘wow’ for us all.