Need money? Ask the alumni!

When the people at Artificial Intelligence heard about the Nao Evolution - a programmable robot that can move, recognise things, and even talk - their interest was piqued immediately. The programme wanted five of them, but that was going to be expensive. They finally succeeded thanks to 20,000 euros in donations from alumni.

The idea originated in America and Great Britain, where alumni often offer financial support for their alma mater. Theatre shows, research, a new library: alumni help pay for a plethora of things. With this in mind, the Ubbo Emmius Fund (UEF) makes sure to stay in contact with alumni from Groningen, combining this with fundraising for education and research. But do the alumni even want to stay involved with the university in this way?

Different culture

Currently, a small contingent of the alumni is prepared to financially help the RUG. Of the 126,000 alumni in UEF’s database, approximately 11,000 have ever made a donation. UEF president Gerbrand Visser thinks this number has the potential to grow in the coming years: ‘15 per cent of English and American alumni donate every year to their alma mater. With us it’s about 7 per cent, but that’s mainly because it’s not common practice with us yet. The culture needs some time to develop.’

‘It allows you to give something back and stay informed’
The fund raises a total of 3.5 million euros every year. Its staff tries to persuade alumni to donate through different methods, such as crowdfunding and phone-based campaigns.

But a large part of the donations comes from the so-called alumni circles or chapters. These circles were thought up by several (ex-)board members at UEF and have been around for approximately five years. On the initiative of the UEF and a small group of enthusiastic alumni, small groups are formed all over the world. Local RUG alumni can then join these groups. Members of the Dutch circles contribute a minimum amount every year, usually between 250 and 500 euros. The money supports specific research at the RUG. In addition, the circle organises conferences with speakers and updates on the research. There are six of these circles in the Netherlands.

Very simple explanation

In the Groningen region, for example, there is the Aduarder circle. These alumni support the research conducted by RUG PhD researcher Arnoud Everhardt, who is working on piezoelectric materials. ‘This material can convert vibrations into electricity. This energy can be used in, for example, telephones or LED lights,’ Everhardt explains. ‘The problem is that the best piezoelectric materials contain toxic lead, so I’m trying to find an alternative.’

He has been working on his research for three years, and every six months he tells the Aduarder circle what he has found. ‘I have to explain it very simply, because the alumni all come from different backgrounds.’ He is very happy to have their support: ‘I think it’s a great initiative and I would like to support research myself in the future. It allows you to give back and stay informed of the research done at the university.’

Cycling through Brooklyn

RUG alumni also regularly get together in Washington, New York, Singapore, Jakarta, Abu Dhabi/Dubai, Hong Kong, and Zurich. The alumni circles in Berlin and San Francisco are still being set up. Visser: ‘We support those circles, but it’s really about the local initiators. They are our frontiersmen, they have to do the work in order to make it a success.’

‘‘We visited Heineken, the Rabobank, and the UN’

One of those frontiersmen is Brunhilde Vergouwen. In 1996, she graduated with a masters in Orthopedagogics and she now works at Health Science Communications in New York. She sits on the board of the New York alumni circle. This circle meets twice a year, usually at the place of work of one of the alumni. ‘We’ve already been to visit Heineken, the Rabobank, and the United Nations’, Vergouwen says. ‘And once we cycled through Brooklyn with an alumnus who owned a bicycle touring company.’

The meetings are mainly focused on being sociable, but the more than 250 New York alumni also contribute to research into the ageing process. Vergouwen: ‘It’s really nice to stay in contact with and meet people who also studied in Groningen. I also wanted to give something back to the university where I enjoyed studying so much.’

Organising internships

That latter reason seems to be the thing that motivates most graduates. ‘The university formed the basis for our current professional lives, and we learned so much there,’ says Marie-Hèléne van Houten. Van Houten manages The Past Perfect Collection, an antique furniture store, and sits on the board of the Singapore alumni circle. This circle has been around since August 2013 and consists of over 150 members who meet three or four times a year. They also help study associations that want to visit Singapore on a field trip and organise the Working Experience Program. ‘This programme provides seven students with the opportunity to do a two-month internship at a company in Singapore’, van Houten explains. ‘We’ve had two successful interns so far.’

The efforts of the alumni and the UEF therefore provide not just money but also more contacts in different regions all over the world. Nevertheless, the financial aspect remains the most important motivation for the UEF to create the circles. ‘These circles can help us create a platform where you can turn involvement into financial contributions’, according to Visser. ‘It’s especially useful for subjects and research that don’t get funded through the first and second cash flows.’ And it appears as though more and more alumni are willing to participate in this platform, especially now that the UEF is becoming more well-known. And because it is becoming harder and harder to get a research grant in the Netherlands, these private initiatives by alumni are more than welcome.