Starting From Scratch: Fund-Raising Lessons Learned in Singapore

Norman Ng, OnAsia

Kheng Chuan Chew of Nanyang Technological University says rewarding donor loyalty is key: Nanyang holds an event to honor those who have contributed consecutively for three or more years, no matter what the size of the donation is.
January 18, 2011

Mention fund raising in Singapore, and one person's name inevitably comes up: Kheng Chuan Chew. He has become practically synonymous with big donations to the country's finest universities and is widely considered to have pioneered a practice that was virtually nonexistent a decade ago in much of Southeast Asia.

In 2003 Mr. Chew, known as K.C., opened the first fund-raising office for the National University of Singapore. In just five years, the university raked in more than $1-billion from philanthropists and a government program that matched donations to universities. This was four times the amount raised in the 12 previous years.

Mr. Chew joined Nanyang Technological University in 2009 to bolster its efforts to raise private funds. The institution this month received roughly $117-million from the Lee Foundation, which was established by a Singaporean businessman. The private donation is reportedly the largest ever to a Singapore university.

Compared with university fund raising in the West, "we're relative novices," says the soft-spoken Mr. Chew. "But 10 years ago, and especially in the last five years, we have suddenly made remarkable advances in programs from a very low base."

Historically, Singapore's alumni and wealthy donors have tended not to support higher education because it was largely viewed as the responsibility of the government. But thanks to Mr. Chew and others, that attitude is changing.

Singapore is now considered a leader in fund raising in Asia, says Krista Slade, who previously led the Asia-Pacific office of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

While many Asian universities have yet to find successful fund-raising strategies, Singaporean institutions "have been quick to adapt and now have the infrastructure and the leadership," says Ms. Slade, who is director of advancement at the Rhodes Trust, in Oxford. "They have created university-advancement programs that didn't exist a few years ago."

The road to becoming Singapore's premier fund raiser was a circuitous one for Mr. Chew. He was the first Singaporean to be admitted to Harvard College, graduating in 1982 with a degree in social studies. He then returned to Singapore and was briefly detained in the late 1980s on accusations of involvement in a subversive Marxist movement.

Changing course, Mr. Chew started a successful corporate design and branding business that he eventually sold. He then joined the National University of Singapore and later moved to Nanyang Technological University. At Nanyang, he teamed up with Marina Tan Harper, director of the university's development office and another fund-raising pioneer.

Her background, too, reflects a diversity of experiences: She grew up in Singapore and was a violist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. After moving to the United States, she worked as a fund raiser at Northern Kentucky University, Chatfield College, and elsewhere, and in 2005 joined Nanyang Technological University. At the time, the university had some 85,000 alumni, but less than 1 percent—just 143 people—had contributed financially to the institution.

"My first role was to create a culture of giving," she says. That year, Ms. Harper initiated a class gift; 8 percent donated. Five years later, that number has risen to 71 percent—the highest rate of student giving among Singapore's three main universities. "Today, if you're not giving at your graduation, you're in the minority," she says.

Fund-Raising Advice

Mr. Chew and Ms. Harper have learned some lessons that can be applied to universities that are relatively new to fund raising or that are located in places lacking a strong philanthropic tradition.

  • "Follow your heart." In Singapore, people want to give, but they don't know how much is appropriate. Ms. Harper tells them to "follow your heart." She emphasizes the personal relationship between individuals and their university, and advises them to "give as much as the university has given you." She stresses that the reputation of the university is equal to one's own reputation. "This is the part that Singaporeans don't understand," she says. "I keep reminding them that you and the university do not part for the rest of your life. You are the university and the university is you."
  • Involve students, faculty, and staff members. The university's "iGave" program, which was started in 2008, uses student "ambassadors" to drum up donations from their peers. This method, Ms. Harper says, is more effective than administrators asking for money. The university starts educating undergraduates about philanthropy as soon as they arrive on campus. The institution gives freshmen iGave-branded tea bags during orientation. The handouts say "have a cuppa" and are meant to familiarize new students with the campaign so they are primed to donate later. "We're building a pipeline for major donors in the future through the iGave program," Ms. Harper says.
  • The university also involves nonstudents in the campaign. Some 35 percent of all university employees contributed in 2010. "In the beginning, you have to have the development office driving the whole thing until it has some flesh and bones," says Ms. Harper, "and then you can add the volunteers in."

  • Encourage loyalty. Nanyang Technological University holds an event to honor those who have contributed consecutively for three or more years. The goal is to promote donor loyalty. It doesn't matter how much money people have given. "You've sent in your pledge fund every year, and we'll have a good time," says Ms. Harper.
  • Get training. When he became a fund raiser, Mr. Chew took professional courses offered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. "When I took on this job, I figured out I didn't need to reinvent the wheel and could learn from the masters," he says.

Adding Local Flavor

The key lesson from Singapore is harnessing the know-how of people who understand the country and the region.

Ms. Slade of the Rhodes Trust says that Ms. Harper and Mr. Chew took "the best practices from the West but with a uniquely Singaporean flavor. This demonstrates that there are universal principles that apply in philanthropic programs, but it's always critical to implement with local context."

Mr. Chew notes that since he was a businessman previously and has roots in Singapore, he had strong relationships with people here before becoming a fund raiser.

He says at one time there was an attempt to bring in assistance from the United States and elsewhere, relying on philanthropy experts who were unfamiliar with Singapore. But he says this met with limited success.

"There was a dearth of fund-raising professionals" before, he says, "particularly those who are familiar with the local context."


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