Market veterans say the lack of a tradition in Asia of alumni and high-net-worth individuals contributing to university endowments has made progress in building those funds in the region hard-earned.
The development of an internal team to cultivate donors has involved painstaking effort — since there were no obvious places in Singapore or the broader region to find people with university fundraising experience, noted Wee Sin Tho, vice president, endowment and institutional development, with the National University of Singapore.
Over the past four years, the NUS development staff grew to more than 70 from 30, with the expansion contributing to the endowment's success in garnering in excess of S$150 million (US$121 million) in donations and pledges in the past year.
Launched about a decade ago, NUS' endowment came to S$2.73 billion as of March 31, 2012, the close of the university's fiscal year. Market watchers say it should end its current fiscal year at well over S$3 billion — making it one of the top two or three university endowment funds in Asia.
Some observers expect the progress Singapore's universities have made in building up their endowments to accelerate in coming years.
Entrepreneurs who built up their wealth in Asia over the past 40 or 50 years were much more likely to construct a hospital or school for their communities than contribute to a university endowment. But that has changed over the past decade as wealthy Asians have moved to more institutionalized wealth management and sought to ensure their contributions have the biggest possible impact, noted Terry Alan Farris, chief development officer with Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
The children of those entrepreneurs have gone to Harvard and Stanford, and been exposed to the style of giving associated with those schools. Now, as their parents think about their legacies, supporting a university is becoming a less foreign concept, he said.
In addition to reaching out to those high-net-worth individuals, NTU is working to inculcate a culture of giving in the next generation of entrepreneurs as well. Mr. Farris said the development office's “I Gave” program has garnered donations from more than 80% of the university's current graduating class of more than 7,000 students, as well as more than 60% of the school's faculty.