Ly Pham (2014)

The Ivy League of American universities are well known as norms of the excellence, partly due to their abundant resources. An important source of these universities’ revenue comes from endowment funds and other donations, which are contributions of several stakeholders, especially the alumni. Harvard University is currently leading the top list of greatest endowment fund with 32.33 billion US$ (by 30.06.2013), followed by Yale University with 20 billion US$. The university endowments in the U.S.A (America) have increased more than 100 folds since 1980, (see Annex 1 and 2). It can be said that, American people have a tradition of donation to the university. This tradition is a part of their cultural maturity, in which donation to the activities that serve the public good is seen an expression of gratefulness for what is received from education, and appreciation towards what a university contributes to the society. Universities in other countries such as Canada, UK, etc, also have endowment funds but their sizes are not as significant as that of American institutions. In Asia, endowment funds; especially for universities, is a very new concept. In Vietnam, this idea is even newer, and according to general perception, donation to the university is seen infeasible.  This article discusses the possibility of developing the tradition of giving endowment to the university in Vietnam, through presenting a Hong Kong University (HKU) success story.  Hong Kong is where the cultural tradition has similarity with Vietnam, therefore their success has a great implications to the Vietnamese universities.

Overview about the process of developing donation tradition and HKU’s achievements

HKU celebrated its centenary not long ago (1911-2011). It was the first and the only university in Hong Kong until 1963. Having established on UK governance model basis, with institutional autonomy and academic freedom as a prerequisite, HKU has produced several generations of leaders. It has grown up together with Hong Kong history and aspirations.

Today, in QS Global Universities Ranking 2013, HKU ranked number 1 in Hong Kong, second in Asia and 26th   globally. According to THES Rankings 2013, HKU ranked top in Hong Kong, third in Asia and stands 43rd in the world.  HKU is a research university, which included 12 faculties and 26 departments. The total number of undergraduate and graduate students equal, approximately 20,000 in total, comprised of 70 nationalities. In 2012, the employment rate of HKU graduates was 99.7%. For the seventh consecutive year, HKU had the highest employment rate among the UGC-funded comprehensive universities. The average annual salary of 2012 HKU graduates was HK$236,000, the highest among the universities in Hong Kong. There were 125 HKU professoriate staff have been ranked by Thomson Reuters as being among the world’s top 1% of scientists, based on the number of citations recorded for their publications. Referred publications per academic and research staff member (June 2013) was 4.2 per person (2011–2012). HKU annual income was 1.015 billion UD$ in which donations and contributions equaled 143 million (14%) and government subventions was 575 million (57%). Many buildings of HKU are named after people who were donors.

HKU Foundation (full name is The University of Hong Kong Foundation for Educational Development & Research ) was established in 1995 as  a charitable organization to support the University’s dream and advancement as it contributes to the local and global communities. Since its inception, various schemes have also been successfully launched, including Endowed Professorships, First-in-the-Family Education Fund, Culture & Humanities Fund, SERVICE 100 Fund, Centennial Campus and Centenary Scholarship Fund, representing milestones in the University’s advancement.  Donations can be earmarked for general purpose or specific projects in academic research, scholarships, projects or campus development in accordance with donors’ wishes. [1]

The professional unit for fund-raising is the Development & Alumni Affairs Office, established in 1995 with the only two staff members that was Bernadette Tsui and a secretary. It was even proposed that Tsui should be employed half-time since she did not have any fundraising experience, but finally she was given a full time position.  Tsui is currently the director of the Office with 45 staff members. She started a job with no experience and no one else in Hong Kong at that time had any experience raising endowment funds. She began by sending letters to a thousand companies/businesses calling for donations to the HKU Foundation. There was no single answer. Her conclusion is that, if we see ourselves as beggars, then people will probably treat us as if we were truly are beggars.

Development & Alummine Affais Office (DAAO) at that time had a Canadian consultant.  He was trying to convince Tsui and the board to do the “phone-a-thon” fundraising back in 1990s, and she refused, since she believed that it would be disastrous.  So it was shelved.  By about 2009 the DAAO finally tried it and yes, it raised some money, but there was one alumnus who strongly complained on privacy grounds. Therefore, Tsui decided not to try it again. She understood that what works in Western society might not work in China. The Asian people do not want to be asked about money and at that time, almost have no idea about giving to the university. She started another approach.

HKU is the oldest university in Hong Kong. It has a large number of alumni who have been successful in wide range of positions on the social ladder. Tsui held several events for connecting them with each other and with the university. She almost never asked for money.  HKU alumni can enjoy using the library, are invited to join public lectures delivered by well known scholars of HKU, who present their research outcomes by a simple language for lay people to understand. The public lectures might include the topics that are of great interest or concern of the community.  By this, she helps the public and alumni particularly to share the university vision, to understand what the university is doing and contributing to the society. It makes them feel proud of being a HKU member and generates the willingness to support the university doing such work.

One of the first initiatives is the HKU Mentorship Programme, established in 1997. The strategy is that, DAAO serves as a bridge for 500 pairs of Mentors (friends and alumni) and Mentees (HKU Students) to be matched each year. The principle is cross‐discipline matching; hallmarks of respect, support, trust, sharing and exposure. This is a voluntary service. HKU alumni and friends devote their knowledge, their network, especially, their time to help the next generations. The purpose of HKU Mentorship Program is to help HKU students to connect with previous HKU generations who are practitioners in their fields and learn from their experiences or advice for life and career. This is gratifying to HKU, as many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have never had the opportunity to join such luxurious social events of elite people. The contributions of HKU alum in this program is not money, but their valuable time. Many of them are CEOs in businesses, a half of this are HKU alumni. Their services are not paid for, but the contribution brings them satisfaction due to the meaningfulness itself. The program reflects that, HKU does not only need money, but many other forms of contributions to help the university fulfilling their mission better. There were 500,000 voluntary hours to date.

HKU Foundation also established First‐in‐the‐Family Education Fund (FIFE) in 2008. The idea is that, no student should be deprived of an opportunity at HKU because of the lack of financial means. The FIFE Fund supports students who are the first generation in their families to attend university, and family income is under average level ($US 2000 per family member). There were 2000 students benefitted to date with the total expenditure approximately 2.3 million $US. FIFE help them to participating cultural exchange program or other experience, activities abroad, studying foreign languages, and so on. Thanks to this support, many HKU students are provided opportunities to make their vision widen to the outside world, and the appreciation to the community support encourages them to be active donors when graduated.

Another initiative is the “Endowed Professorship” established 9 years ago following Western model. Endowed Professorship is a university or academic appointment that is supported fully/partly by the income of an endowment established only for this purpose, which is usually awarded to a person who is already a fully-tenured professor. The scheme aims to support an academic discipline and professor. A donation of HK$10 million will be matched dollar for dollar by the University to form a permanent endowment of $20 million.  Annual interest of at least $600K (3%) to support the designated discipline; the incumbent professor will use the annual disbursement (say 600K, 3%) for research purposes. The Professorship is named in honor of the donor. To be appointed this position is an honor in academic world, therefore, the university sees that as a reward for encouragement for excellence. When HKU first established this scheme, they sent out about 50 letters to CEOs of the 50 big corporations, each signed by the Vice-Chancellor as well as Council Chairman.  No answer. Now there were 80 Endowed Professorships to date. Each professorship is a great gift. Each gift comes with a story and a dream.

HK 2     To celebrate the centenary, HKU held several activities during 2010-2012, in which there was a special initiative for alumni: “Every Brick tells a Story”. The Bricks Campaign allows supporters to become a visible and lasting part of this momentous time of the history and development of HKU by having their names, names of their loved ones or personal messages engraved on a brick, such as “My dearest wife CORY. You are my life & my everything! Our love since 2001 & love you forever! Your husband ANDY”, “Megan & Andrea. Do care, share, give and love. We love you forever. Mum and Dad”, “In loving memory of my teacher Andrew. Eleanor và Gabriel”. Each brick is equal to a donation of $HK 18,000 ($US 2,400) or over. All donations went towards the Campus Development in support of the Centennial Campus. Launched in March 2008; the Bricks Wall was completed and opened in November 2013. The campain raised approximately HK$32 million ($US 4.3 millions) by support from 1,700 donors and friends. There were engraved inscriptions on 1,270 bricks. Each brick has a copy for the donor to bring home for memory.

These are some of many schemes and HKU initiatives for nurturing tradition of giving to the university. HKU success inspired other universities, one of example is the Endowed Professorship launched by Polytechnic University of Hong Kong in 2013.

Secret keys for success

HKU has made possible one thing to be seen infeasible before. This success obviously has great contributions of Bernadette Tsui. In later years she has received several attractive offers from other institutions but she has never thought of leaving HKU, as she believes that her mission is to connect HKU generations to serve its mission. The chancellors come and go, but Tsui has been there for almost twenty years and having known almost everybody. The following are the secret keys for success that she shares with others.

Money is not the purpose

If fundraisers see money is their end, and events to be held are means, it will be realized sooner or later. Tsui understands deeply that it is most important to share the university’s vision, help the community to understand and appreciate the values and the contribution that the university makes for a better society. She targeted the common goal of ensuring the long‐term success of the institution in fulfilling its mission, and the common strategy of building supportive relationships among those constituents who can make significant contributions to that long‐term success. Institutional advancement is not just fund-raising, not just asking for money, but nurturing, building and maximizing the university’s social capital for the growth and advancement of the university. All is about connection and reputation and these are built over time.

Tsui-resized To do that, Tsui has constantly built an alumni network and almost never asked for money. She creates communication and information channels, social events, networking gala, etc. in order to connect people, to keep them posted with current activities of HKU and understand about what it means to the society. She cares for every detail as each detail has an implication. Tsui acknowledges that institutional development should be professional, and top secrets of success are not how to ask for money, but to wait. She waits for the right moment to act and money will come as the result – no need to push or to insist anyone.

Success of fund-raising is the result of everything

Tsui has a special ability to inspire people strongly when she shares the university’s visions. She won’t be able to do so if HKU does not truly have its vision and the values that the university upholds constantly during its history. To gain the support of the community, university must protect its integrity, not to compromise with the bad, the evils and stupidity. Only with those characteristics, the university could be a reflection of hope. Behind Bernadette Tsui are numerous professors who work on their missions passionately day by day; the leaders who are constantly pursuing ultimate goals and values of the university; a century history of   uncompromising with anything that might damage university values. Tsui is a part of a university that understands: the greatest asset it has, is its people. This is expressed clearly in the President message of Peter Mathieson, the 15th chancelor of HKU and currently in this position: “There is one thing about the University that will not change: the importance of its people. HKU’s greatest assets have always been, and will always be, its staff, students, alumni and friends”.

Discussion on building donation culture for Vietnam

Challenges in cultural issues

Donation is absolutely a feature of the culture. Discussions on the topic of fundraising in Asian Higher Education Summit to be held in June 27-28, Hong Kong, have a consensus that donation related to the cultural maturity, especially in university perception. In Western countries, particularly in America, people are familiar with various forms of contributions to the community including donate to the university. Giving inheritance or having the university inheriting all properties is popular in the U.S.A. It is not that they do not love their children, but due to perception of standing on our own as a core value, for that enjoying what we do not make is not something to proud of. This tradition is built on a society of generosity and civic duty with the educational focus on one’s responsibility to the community since the childhood.

In contrast, in developing countries one leans on their family rather than community, therefore, the awareness of donate to society as paying one’s debt of gratitude is still limited. Vietnamese people donate to church and pagoda, but this has different implications than donating to the university as an attitude toward the society.

However, more importantly is that the role and value of the university is vague. Many people still see the university as a vocational school that provides them skills and knowledge, with a degree, for making a living for their survival. University as an institution that cherishes excellence, and helps to protect common values for society, has not deeply rooted yet in Vietnam. Marketization and commercialization have made the university a place where everything can be sold and bought as a commodity.

Will people donate their assets and properties to a school where teachers are workers and supervisors are superintendents? A school where people fighting each other for power of control, at any cost? A school where the president’s most concern is to maintain his/her position with any mean? A school where what people say things totally different from what they do? If you were alumni, will you donate to a school where scores and degrees can be bought, a school with no loving memory, not to make people being proud of it? A school having no core values, no vision, no aspiration, no dream, and having no one devoting energy to its missions, is unable to be embodiment of hope. It can never convince the community and the public.

Therefore, building and nurturing the tradition of giving to the university has a great implication. It is not just diversified university income within the financial constraint context. It is not just having more resource to do things better. It is a bridge to connect the university and the society. It is a bridge to connect several generations of the university students. It brings to people the pride of being a part of a valuable institution and contributing to its growth. To be successful in institutional advancement, universities must uphold their own dignities and reputation, constantly celebrate the excellence and endeavor of contributing to social development.

Challenges in governance model

Suprisingly, the barriers of building an endowment fund are not just traditional culture but also the management structure. To date, there is very newly issued document that provides guidance for not-for-profit private higher education institutions (Decree 141, dated October 24, 2013). It has not had enough time to be translated into practice. Therefore, all the private universities in Vietnam are for-profit institutions to date.   There will be challenges for them to build endowment fund, except scholarship fund which has relative small size.

In contrast, public universities are unable to establish Endowment Fund, due to having no financial regulation management for such type of fund.  Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City Development Fund (VNU-F) is the unique agency in its kind, because VNU-HCM enjoys a favorable greater autonomy as one of the two national universities which are funded directly by Ministry of Finance and held accountable to the Cabinet. This fund was established for the purpose of stimulating social capital for university development. However, it can be said that, the influence of VNU-F on the society is still limited.

One reason for this limitation is that, there is no national legal framework for encouraging donation to the university.  To promote tradition of giving the university, governments in many countries have tax exemption for such amount, and create other incentives such as matching fund. The two incentives have not existed in Vietnam.


Changing the culture takes time, but is possible. HKU has proven so. In Vietnam, several universities currently have paid attention to alumni and realize the importance of building this network. However, their success is still limited. To gain a greater success, the HKU experiences and best practices is worthy of notice. If there were a key word for success in fund raising, that would be TRUST. Fundraisers must believe in university vision and mission, in the values that the university upholds, in the legitimacy of their activities, so that they can convince other people to believe in the meaning value a university brings to society. University leaders have to trust their staff of institutional advancement, to give them enough room for innovation. Finally, the implication of building tradition of giving the university is creating sense of belonging to the community instead of dependent on state or market. With this, tradition of donation benefits all the stakeholders: the university has more resources, and as an exchange, it must maintain the integrity and be faithful to its values, that benefit greatly to society. Donors are satisfied their contributions to society that are well recognized. Individual or departments that are supported by donations will be enabled to do their work better. Society is benefitted as these activities enhance the university qualification and make them to be relevant.

Hong Kong 28.06.2014.


The author would like to thank Mdm Ton Nu Thi Ninh for recommendation to attend the Summer Institute, the ADB and Vietnam National University for financial supporting. Special thanks go to Bernadette Tsui for her inspiring presentation, Professor Kai-ming Cheng and Professor Gerard Prostigione for their leadership towards Summer Institute & Asian Higher Education Summit. The author would also like to express her sincere gratitude to Assistant Professor Dan Matre, Alverno College, U.S.A. for providing feedback on the English edition of this article.

Contact: [email protected] or [email protected]


Annex 1. Top 50 universities with greatest endowment fund (by 30.06.2013)

Rank Universities Value (million USD)
1 Harvard University 32,334
2 Yale University 20,780
3 The University of Texas System 20,448
4 Stanford University 18,689
5 Princeton University 18,200
6 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 11,006
7 The Texas A&M University System 8,732
8 University of Michigan 8,382
9 Columbia University 8,198
10 Northwestern University 7,883
11 University of Pennsylvania 7,741
12 University of Notre Dame 6,856
13 University of Chicago 6,669
14 University of California 6,377
15 Duke University 6,041
16 Emory University 5,816
17 Washington University in St. Louis 5,652
18 Cornell University 5,272
19 University of Virginia 5,167
20 Rice University 4,837
21 University of Southern California 3,868
22 Dartmouth College 3,734
23 Vanderbilt University 3,673
24 The Ohio State University 3,149
25 Johns Hopkins University 2,987
26 University of Pittsburgh 2,976
27 The Pennsylvania State University 2,957
28 New York University 2,949
29 University of Minnesota 2,757
30 Brown University 2,670
31 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2,381
32 University of Washington 2,347
33 Purdue University 2,182
34 University of Richmond 2,023
35 University of Wisconsin Foundation 2,020
36 Williams College 1,997
37 University of Illinois & Foundation 1,926
38 California Institute of Technology 1,850
39 Amherst College 1,824
40 Pomona College 1,823
41 Boston College 1,809
42 Rockefeller University 1,772
43 Indiana University & Foundation 1,735
44 University of Rochester 1,730
45 Georgia Institute of Technology 1,715
46 Case Western Reserve University 1,679
47 Michigan State University 1,637
48 Swarthmore College 1,635
49 University of Toronto 1,593
50 Smith College 1,557

Source: Boston College

Annex 2. Historical Endowment Growth in the USA


Hong Kong University website:

Bernadette Tsui presentation dated 25.06.2014 and 28.06.2014 at Summer Institute and Asian Higher Education Summit, HKU.