Sweden’s Shifting Culture of Philanthropy in Higher Education

Jessica O’Mary, Head of Alumni and Foundation Relations at the Stockholm School of Economics, shares her views on the shifting culture of philanthropy in Sweden and how fundraisers can adapt. Jessica will be speaking at the CASE Nordic Summit in Oslo, 5–6 April 2017.

Fundraising has been my passion ever since I attended graduate school in my hometown of Austin, Texas. Back then, I couldn’t imagine I might have a career where I would meet so many interesting people and represent such terrific organizations. I also soon discovered (as many of us have) that what I truly loved was being able to connect people who cared deeply about issues with organizations that could truly make a difference with their assistance. After all, isn’t that what fundraising is all about?

My fundraising career started when I worked as Development Director at small nonprofit and continued when I then worked for my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ’em Horns!). About two and half years ago my family and I moved to Stockholm, Sweden where I accepted a position to fundraise for the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). Initially, I almost felt like a walking stereotype since I was one of the few Americans on staff at SSE and I just happened to be the sole fundraiser. Everyone here in Sweden seems to think that we (Americans) have a special gift where we don’t mind asking people for money!

Over the past few years I have noticed some significant as well as subtle differences in the philanthropic cultures between the US and Sweden. These differences are not necessarily better or worse, but they need to be carefully understood for successful fundraising. This is especially true in Sweden today where the current social and economic landscape is rapidly changing. Over the past few decades, government funding for many institutional programmes has gradually decreased at the same time when private wealth has increased. These changes will necessitate a shift in the external funding models used by many Swedish organizations. Fortunately, it’s clear from speaking with donors and my colleagues at other universities throughout Sweden that a philanthropy-based culture of giving is steadily emerging. All of these factors makes this a very interesting time to be involved with fundraising in Sweden.

One of the more noticeable differences I identified immediately in Sweden was the lack of any tax-benefit policy for individuals who make donations to nonprofits or universities. In the US, philanthropy is actively encouraged through various tax-deductions that individuals may claim when making donations, but this is not the case here in Sweden. Without any financial carrot, it is even more essential for a fundraiser working in Sweden to provide a clear focus on why a donor’s support is so important.

Given Sweden’s historical funding model, most universities haven’t needed to prioritize fundraising efforts to alumni or other individuals. The government still continues to provide a vast majority of the funding for most universities in Sweden. This is an area where the Stockholm School of Economics is unique in Sweden. We are the only private university in the country; receiving only 20% of our funding directly from the government. However, due to the Bologna Process in 2007, much of higher education in Europe was standardized across the region. This has created more direct competition among European universities and also allowed students to move more easily between countries. To remain competitive, universities feel they must make additional investments to improve both teaching and research. Given the current trend in government funding, all universities will have to find new ways of securing vital financial support.

So, how can fundraisers in Sweden continue to adapt during a time of changing culture and attitudes?

Encourage donors to share their story

When you talk about fundraising or philanthropy, many Swedes will say things like, “Well, giving back financially just isn’t part of our culture.” While it might be true that Swedes don’t give at similar levels as is common in the US or UK, there is still plenty of evidence that they do indeed give back, especially to international causes. I suspect that one of the reasons people might have this misconception is that quite often Swedes feel uncomfortable discussing their financial giving, even with friends. Many wealthy philanthropists aren’t interested in having their names on the front of a building or even listed on a website. Swedes place a high value on humility and certainly do not want to appear better than anyone else. However, these same donors can become very engaged and will gladly reach out to friends and colleagues when the discussion focuses less on the donation itself, but rather why the donor feels this investment is important and what it can accomplish. When I meet with both new and established donors to the Stockholm School of Economics, I often ask and encourage them to allow me to share their giving story with others. The more our donors allow us to showcase the ways their own generosity has improved our university, the more we will be able to encourage others to take similar actions.

Innovate, Test and Analyze

Without strong philanthropic traditions, Swedes also have fewer expectations on how and when the process of giving should take place. This provides a great opportunity to try innovative and creative solutions with respect to fundraising. Swedes, in general, seem very open and willing to try new things, especially when adapting to technology. To give an example, in the fall of 2015 the Stockholm School of Economics launched an event we called “Rally for SSE!” which was a 24-hour day of giving using an online crowdfunding platform. Although this type of fundraising had not been attempted in Sweden before, we showed that it could work and we ultimately exceeded our original goal by 100%.

In a relatively high-tech country like Sweden, fundraisers should continually be aware of the latest technology trends that donors might favor. Over the past several years, Sweden has seen a remarkable increase in the use of an app called “Swish.” Swish connects to your bank account and allows for the simple and secure transfer of funds simply by entering the telephone number of another user. Many charities here have embraced its use as an alternative giving method due to the relative ease in which donors can give. In fact, during our fall 2016 annual fund we piloted the use of Swish and we discovered that approximately 20% of the donations were made via the app. It is important to always remember that after implementing any new fundraising strategies to not simply analyze just the financial results but also to talk to donors individually to get their feedback on how the process was perceived and what ultimately made them give themselves to that specific campaign. In a country like Sweden, where old fundraising principles have seldom been tried and new technologies are continually adapted, these conversations will give you the invaluable insights that could never be found by only looking at the numbers.

Give Thanks

Even in a shifting culture of philanthropy, basic stewardship remains as always a crucial part of fundraising. Another of those cultural differences I have noticed since coming from the US is that the typical Swede does not instinctively expect to receive a sign of appreciation when they do something noteworthy. Therefore, I have found that taking the time to say thanks as often and in as many ways as possible has been greatly valued by our donors. Something as simple as a hand-written note to individually thank our donors isn’t expected in Sweden, like it is the US, so it really gets noticed! We recently hosted a thank you lunch with the SSE President to show our appreciation to all donors and volunteers from the previous year. We had unbelievable turnout! I had no idea that so many of our supporters would be interested in attending something as simple as a thank you lunch.

Each culture presents unique challenges and opportunities, and it’s important for fundraisers to adapt their strategies accordingly and Sweden is no different. But what Sweden has demonstrated to me is that the opportunities can be endless for engaging individuals if you are willing to try new things and listen to what the donors have to say. The challenge is where do we start!

Interested in hearing more fundraising insights from Jessica, then register for the CASE Nordic Summit, 5-6 April 2017, Oslo.

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