news & articles

How can we use kindness to guide our fundraising?

May 16, 2018

Susie Hills reflects as Halpin Fundraising – a specialist consultancy (with a difference) – launches worldwide.

What if we reimagined fundraising using the guiding principle of kindness?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that kindness is ‘the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate’.

To help us further:

  • ‘friendly’ is defined as ‘kind and pleasant’,
  • ‘generous’ is defined as ‘showing a readiness to give more than is necessary’, and
  • ‘considerate’ is defined as ‘careful not to inconvenience or harm others’.

Sounds like a pretty good guide to how we should behave as fundraisers. Let’s see how they could look as a set of ‘rules’ for fundraising. Maybe something like this:

“We will be friendly, generous and considerate as we fundraise. This means we will:

  1. Be kind and pleasant -
    • be respectful and positive in our communications,
    • look after each other as we work,
    • be respectful of our donors and our recipients.
  2. Be ready to give more than is necessary:
    • work hard for our chosen cause,
    • use resources efficiently,
    • consider going above and beyond to care for our donors and our recipients.
  3. Be careful not to inconvenience others:
    • respect the right of people to say no (whilst being hopeful they will say yes)
    • take care of the information donors give us”
    • Once we have our established our ‘kindness rules’, we could then measure all our fundraising techniques against them – perhaps even giving them a score out of 10 on our ‘kindness-o-meter’. This might help us rethink some of our fundraising practices.

Let’s give it a try with street fundraising.

Now I haven’t yet met a street fundraiser who didn’t seem kind and pleasant as they beamed at me and tried to engage with me. They often seem charming and likeable. They seem ready to give more than is necessary to get me to talk to them, but it’s more than I want as I rush down the street with other things on my mind.

That’s when we get to Rule 3 – not inconveniencing others. Here is where they fail and why, ultimately, this form of fundraising is not sustainable. The reality is that I am going somewhere to do something, and I don’t want, or have time, to stop and consider giving to a charity at that moment in time.

In fact, maybe it isn’t kind to try to stop me, to make me feel rude or guilty for not engaging. I feel inconvenienced and annoyed, even though I haven’t really been inconvenienced at all. The reality is that when I am on the street going about my business, I am not ready to give my thought, time or money. It feels uncomfortable to be asked in that situation, no matter how kind or pleasant the asker is. If I do stop and talk and end up giving, the likelihood is that I won’t continue my donations because I don’t feel I have freely chosen to support the cause.

You can see how we can test our fundraising activities against this list. Similarly, on a micro-level we can test our individual actions against this list, and use it to develop new practice. How powerful it is to ask, “Will the donor feel looked after when they receive this?” or “Does this show we are kind and ready to give/do more?”

It may also help us to foster teamwork. Fundraising is hard work and turnover amongst fundraisers is high. It’s hard to recruit, and keep, good fundraisers. What if we recruited people for kindness (amongst their other qualities, skills and experience), and fostered a team where kindness drove our behaviours? See my previous blog on this topic. I am pretty sure that the fundraising results of a team which operates from the basis of kindness will be higher. If we are kind to each other, we can be kind to our donors.

And kindness doesn’t mean never asking for a gift. Indeed, once of the kindest things you can do is to ask somebody to help change lives. Many of the philanthropists I have worked with are grateful to have been asked, grateful for the joy that their giving has brought to their lives, and grateful for the satisfaction that comes from putting their money to good purpose.

Kindness does mean that you ensure the donor understands the purpose of the conversation, that you respect their interests and time, that they have a choice and that nothing is hidden.

Kindness means we can trust one another, and that trust will allow us to try new things and challenge the norms. Our profession needs to regain trust and we have to start with one another.

Susie Hills

Why aren’t the Rich Listers giving (and how can we change that)?

May 15, 2018

£115m gets you onto the Sunday Times Rich List. It means you are one of the richest 1,000 people in the UK. Together the richest 1,000 own £724bn, 10% more than last year and yet their giving has barely increased.

In 2017, Rich Listers gave a total of £3.207bn – only a smidgen (0.3%) more than last year.

There are 145 billionaires on the list, 11 more than last year and double the number than just five years ago – and yet the number of Rich Listers giving 1% of their wealth is down by 20 from last year.

Deeply disappointing.

£115m would get me into the top 1,000 richest people in the UK. If I gave 1% of my wealth I would be one of the top 95 donors on the list.

905 Rich Listers are giving less than 1% of their wealth.

A few are bucking the trend and giving much, much, more. Like the generous Sainsbury family whose fortune has declined from £1.967bn to £550m due to their generosity. In 2009 they became the first Rich Listers to give away £1bn.

But 905 are clearly not ‘doing their bit’.

Charities Aid Foundation data shows us, “those in the bottom decile donate approximately 3% of their budget”.

Only 35 of the Rich List gave 3% or more of their wealth away. If they had all donated 3% of their wealth, the total donated would be over £21bn – not £3bn. Much more like it…

Even if the Rich Listers failed to be as generous as the poorest in our country and decided to only give 1%, then it would be £7.2bn – more than double the figure reported by the Sunday Times.

Now I know that I am not quite comparing apples with apples, and that the wealth listed in the Rich List is not the same as the income from which the poorest 10% give. However, it’s still hard to see how anyone whose wealth is listed at £115m or more cannot give at least 1% of their wealth away. This is illustrated admirably by those who are giving at some much higher rates – the 9 Rich Listers who gave 10% or more.

So why haven’t the ultra-rich giving more? Maybe because ‘we’ haven’t asked for it.


Charities in the UK have failed to develop major giving and have focused on mass and community giving.

The University sector in the UK has led the way in securing major gifts, with the majority of £1m+ gifts going to HE. Coutts reported that higher education institutions received the highest number of donations of £1m or more (600). Universities have focused major gift fundraising. They do their research, build long-term relationships, recruit and train for major gift fundraisers, and, most importantly, they get out there and ask.

If giving amongst the ultra-rich is to grow, then charities must take inspiration from the higher education sector, and invest in major gift fundraising now.

Susie Hills

My life in fundraising (and why I joined The Halpin Partnership)

May 14, 2018

“You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

(John Bunyan)

When I was jobhunting upon leaving college (in a different millennium), a couple of good friends suggested working for a fundraising consulting firm. I had never heard of such a business, let alone held any aspirations to enter the field. I was told you could travel a bit, meet interesting people and develop skills that may be helpful down the road. So I applied, and was offered the job.

Thirty-six years later I have not regretted that decision for one moment. When I started out, friends and family responded with blank stares when I told them of my business. Today, I get only slightly fewer blank looks and questions such as, “You actually do that for a living?”

As anyone who has been in the business a while understands, you do not do this work to get rich. Yet, I cannot think of more satisfying and fulfilling work.

I have sat on both sides of the table during my career. I began as a consultant and learned the trade, so to speak, and found that the basic principles of fundraising learned during my consulting days are universal:

  • A compelling reason or vision for people to give;
  • Leadership that is committed to making the vision a reality;
  • A donor base that understands the mission and is prepared to support it.
  • People give to people;
  • People respond most generously to specific requests.

Everyone involved with nonprofits believes their organisation is unique and important, and can raise as much money as they need. As a consultant it was often my job to bring the client back to earth because one or more of the essential elements was lacking or missing. At times, these were difficult but necessary conversations. As consultants, we bring the power of objectivity and perspective, based on our experience that, if accepted and embraced, it can be transformational.

There is another aspect to consulting work that I have always found fascinating. We often work with powerful and influential people; people who make many complex and difficult decisions in their professional lives on a daily basis. Yet, when it comes to asking for money, or understanding what it takes to ask for money, many of these people become flummoxed.

As a staff member, I brought the same experiences to the table with, at times, different results. I found that professional advice offered as a consultant means relatively little. You find yourself caught in the culture of the organisation – “This is the way we do things here” – and find it difficult to effect change. And when it comes it’s incremental. And, of course, when you are inevitably asked to bring consultants in, you realise you are never a prophet in your own land. Which drew me back to the consulting world.

I can say without hesitation that the work I have been involved in over the years has improved the lives of more people than I could have ever imagined. Better educational opportunities, better healthcare, stronger and more viable faith-based institutions, more increased opportunities for the arts to reach more people, more opportunities for social change.

How has the business changed? In many, many good and sustainable ways. Women are a predominant force in the profession. There are many more nonprofits that are doing essential and important work, and donors are more knowledgeable and sophisticated as to how their gifts can transform organisations in ways great and small. Moreover, it is a profession that plays a vital role in creating, sustaining and reclaiming institutions that are essential to the greater good. And, as I speak with young people considering careers, I have found nonprofit work has become an important option.

I am delighted to join the roster of stellar professionals at The Halpin Partnership, to bring my skills and experiences to organisations on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have tried to raise money by asking for it and by not asking for it. I always got more by asking for it.”

(Millard Fuller, founder Habitat for Humanity)

Jim Buggy, Halpin Fundraising Fellow

Introducing…Halpin Fundraising

May 14, 2018

Halpin Partnership has today announced its fundraising services as part of its suite of education management consultancy services.

Founded in 2017, Halpin Partnership is gaining traction, having already attracting high-calibre clients such as University of Bath, Swansea University, University of Exeter, and Equality and Human Rights Foundation. Joint CEOs Susie Hills and Shaun Horan have assembled an unrivalled team of consulting ‘Fellows’ – all senior experts in their fields.

Having both previously held senior-level leadership and fundraising roles in HEIs and non-profits, Susie and Shaun have selected their team of fundraising Fellows from their extensive network spanning education, health and corporate sectors. The group includes experts in major gifts, data and insight, alumni relations, regular giving, legacies, marketing and communications – and all have delivered tangible results for the institutions they have served.

Fellows include Sir Drummond Bone (Master of Balliol College, University of Oxford), Doug Thomson (Director of Campaign and Alumni Relations, University of Nottingham), Penny Hubbard (Development Director at Newnham College, University of Cambridge), Tony Woodcock (former President of New England Conservatory, Massachusetts), and Jack Oldham, US-based consultant with extensive experience of the higher education, non-profits and the philanthropic sector.

Susie said, “Shaun and I are proud that some of the leading fundraising experts have chosen to align themselves with Halpin Partnership. We apply a wider lens of experience to fundraising, offering deep sectoral insight, high-level skills, and recent hands-on experience. We offer smart fundraising with a sophisticated, efficient and action-orientated approach.”

For more information email [email protected]

What international education needs: inclusive approaches on every level

Mar 26, 2018

There have been some significant shifts in the global discourse about higher education internationalisation recently. The Western perspective that has tended to dominate, with its assumptions that internationalisation is ‘a good thing’, is being challenged. Is it positive for everyone? And have we been guilty of taking a narrow (and lopsided) view of what it’s all about?

I attended UUKi’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) in Nottingham on 14 March. It was clear from the opening plenary (which involved speakers from universities in Japan, Switzerland, Canada and the USA, as well as a representative for Pacific Rim institutions) that internationalisation means different things in different contexts. However, there was broad recognition of the wider societal role of international education: the need to face outwards and to operate across institutional and national boundaries to tackle shared global challenges; the need to embrace more egalitarian and inclusive approaches to internationalisation; and the need to measure its success in new ways such as public service commitment or advancement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Chris Tremewan, Secretary-General of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, called for a redefinition of internationalisation in HE, moving from competitive self-interest to global common good.

This echoes recent calls for a re-examination of what universities are for: from, among many others, Shaun Horan (who emphasises their role performing ‘a service to humanity’) and Mike Boxall (who outlines a vision of them being ‘leaders and orchestrators in a variety of multi-partner “learning ecosystems”’, helping to address challenges at local, national and global level).

Partnerships, networks and social responsibility – a UK perspective

International partnerships and networks have long been a feature of the global higher education landscape. In the UK context, I have seen them growing in importance within institutional strategies. And, since the Brexit vote, attention has been cranked up still further.

I would readily bet that the international travel schedules of Vice-Chancellors and their executive teams have become more frenetic, as they seek to reach out and secure relationships in continental Europe while also demonstrating commitment to new partners further afield. They/we are seeking, perhaps, to mitigate any impression that the UK is a less open society than it once was; to demonstrate the values so eloquently voiced via the #WeAreInternational campaign.

The notion of universities as ‘global team players’ has been proposed by Nicola Brewer of University College London (UCL), who cites Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand. Habib’s view is that universities should act ‘in a way that supports the global academy of commons rather than simply advancing the individual aspirations of institutions’.

The term ‘global engagement’ is increasingly replacing the term ‘internationalisation’; and global engagement through strategic partnerships is a strong focus for many UK HEIs (including UCL).

At an IHEF session entitled ‘Networks, hedges and bridges’, Philip Gilmartin of University of East Anglia described a new network of ‘like-minded’ European institutions called Aurora. Its key priorities include embracing diversity and inclusion, contributing societal impact through relevant research and promoting environmental sustainability. It has already launched a project to make internationalisation more inclusive, with a particular focus on facilitating an international experience for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While there was much (welcome) emphasis at the conference on encouraging outbound student mobility from traditional ‘destination’ countries such as the UK (including a session on the UUKi Go International: Stand Out campaign), one topic which did not get enough airtime was internationalisation of the curriculum as a means of bringing a much-needed global perspective to the ‘static majority’ of students who are not internationally mobile.

And then there are those who are involuntarily mobile. Another IHEF session launched UUKi’s guide for universities on ‘Higher Education and displaced people’. This is a call to action for universities to develop strategies for making higher education accessible to both young people and academics whose learning and careers have been stopped in their tracks as a result of forced migration.

There were many other examples of a more outward-facing form of HE internationalisation (or global engagement) which – at heart – is really just about universities fulfilling their societal role on a global stage.

What about a national strategy?

There was a certain amount of envy among participants at IHEF towards those (many) countries which have national (government-championed) strategies for international education. Canada in particular was seen as a prime example of successful joined up thinking at national level (though it was noted that even the Canadians struggle with outbound student mobility).

The fragmented approach in the UK was critiqued in the closing plenary by Janet Beer (President, UUK), Geoff Mulgan (Chief Executive, NESTA) and others. This perception of fragmentation (particularly across different government departments) is not new (see my 2015 blog looking back on the previous decade).

However, the calls were loud and compelling for a new, joined up international strategy for UK HE, with a broader focus than previous, largely economically driven strategies. Ciaran Devane (British Council) observed that our language skills are diminishing so any international strategy must incorporate foreign language learning. Others made the point that it must include local students (see my earlier observation about curriculum internationalisation).

The imminence of Brexit was seen to increase the urgency of developing such a strategy.

Which brings us on to Simon Marginson’s presentation of current research by the Centre for Global Higher Education on UK universities’ approaches to Brexit-related uncertainty. Early findings from the project suggest a distinct lack of planning for different scenarios. Because the UK HE system is used to comparative stability, institutions seem almost paralysed in the face of uncertainty: still in ‘shock phase’. They are used to others setting the rules and appear to be waiting for government to tell them what to do.

Marginson highlighted a lack of urgency within institutions: a sense that the impact will only really be felt in 4 to 5 years’ time (so it’s a problem for the next Vice-Chancellor). He urged leaders to consider possible scenarios and develop plans (and plan Bs) to deal with them, rather than waiting for a steer from above.

He ended with this very apt quotation from Voltaire: ‘Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.’

Joining up within our own institutions

As we’ve seen, it’s easy to point fingers at a lack of joined up thinking at government level, but how joined up are we within our own institutions?

An interesting session titled ‘Structured for Success’ looked at the different ways in which three UK HEIs structure their international activities.

Of particular interest was the University of Reading’s approach, shared by Enzo Raimo. He highlighted the things that often don’t make it into HEI international strategies: staff recruitment, student diversity, capacity development, English language support, foreign languages, knowledge transfer and business engagement.

Reading has taken the unusual step of embedding its global engagement strategy within an academic unit – with a view to achieving full integration of internationalisation into everything the university does. It has an ambitious goal to make its own global engagement strategy redundant by 2021.

This resonates with my research into UK HEI approaches to ‘integrated internationalism’ in the mid-2000s, when it was suggested by one interviewee that the ultimate measure of success for an International Office was for it no longer to be needed.

So, at institutional level, it seems there are moves to develop more inclusive internationalisation strategies (the new strategy at Cardiff Met includes a humanitarian strand), but also to embed international ways of thinking more firmly across all organisational functions.

What does all this mean for UK universities?

The institutional implications of a more inclusive, more joined up, more outward-facing and more collaborative approach to internationalisation (on global, national and organisational levels) are considerable.

As a starting point, I would urge UK HEIs to:

  • Be open to learning from other institutions operating in different global contexts, recognising that there is strength in diversity.
  • Lobby government for the right kind of international strategy for UK HE, embracing a more inclusive set of ambitions.
  • Club together with other HEIs (at home and abroad) where there are common interests and where a united approach will be more powerful.
  • Be clear about how internationalisation can support your own institution’s priorities and identify the best path to embed it across all relevant functions.

Above all, I would echo Simon Marginson’s rallying cry for UK HEIs to take responsibility for their own destiny.

Dr Vicky Lewis - Halpin Consulting Fellow

Smile…and be a villain: values in corporate culture

Mar 25, 2018

When Enron collapsed in 2001 due to dishonesty on a massive scale (and dragged down Arthur Andersen with them), I had a look at what they said about themselves. What key things were important to them? What had they said they cared most about? It made for interesting reading.

One of their key values was “integrity”.

For me, that summed up a creeping sense of discomfort I had felt with the obsession for defining and documenting your “values” as a company. It is a discomfort that has stayed with me while working for and with a whole range of organisations. Some of these were outstanding, some weren’t, but whether or not they spoke about the right values had little correlation with their actual behaviour.

The behaviour towards values in an organisation was also interesting. Some display them in their offices, or give them to employees in ‘easy-to-remember formats’ to pin up, some even print them on coffee mugs! Some talk about decisions through the prism of whether it “accords with their values”, although a large amount of flexibility in interpretation sometimes seems to accompany those conversations.

Yet organisations are just groups of people. They have no independent personality of their own and so can’t have their own values. They may attract a certain personality type and have a certain culture (and culture definitely trumps values in behaviour), but that’s because of the people already there, not because some value exists magically on its own. Companies fail or succeed because of the people within them and the way in which those people behave to one another, to suppliers, to investors and to customers. Well-established brands can be destroyed overnight because of the behaviours and values of their current staff (see Barings and those already mentioned above).

So, I ask this. Do you need a printed list of values about yourself to remind you of what your behaviour should be as an individual? Or a list naming the qualities you expect of your friends? Or do you simply hold your values in your heart and judge the values of your friends by their behaviour over time?

And that’s the key point – organisations should be judged by what they actually do, and not by what they say about themselves. “Deeds not words” – the great slogan of the suffragettes – illustrates my point beautifully. This statement of values by the suffragettes only had meaning because it was followed it up by direct action. When Hamlet said of Claudius that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain, he was pointing to exactly the chasm between how you represent yourself, and what you actually do.

I lose count of the times I have seen organisations say in their corporate values that they are “caring”, but then demonstrate appalling behaviour to employees who need some understanding. Or those companies who describe themselves as courageous, decisive and honest, but are actually timid, dithering and afraid to be straight with their employees.

The more time that has to be dedicated to figuring out what your values are, (and getting them designed and printed for all to see), the less they would seem to be real. If you don’t know what your values are without the need for an away day, there may be no help for you.

None of this is to say that shared values are not important – they are vital in fact. Who and what you truly are should encourage the right people to work with you, and believe in what you stand for, and trust in you. As an individual, you should not have to leave your values behind at the corporate door. If you can’t be yourself and act with integrity in a work environment, you’re in the wrong place.

But it is not what you say about yourself that counts, it’s what you do. The two things have to marry up with no gap in-between. As a leader, this doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with your decisions or always like you, but it does mean that they will see that you are acting with integrity as you make decisions and that you behave in accordance with your values. Have a plan as to where you are going, be clear as to your strategy for getting there, do what you need to do to reach your goals, but use your values as your compass – if you can’t get there without compromising your core beliefs, you’re heading in the wrong direction.

So, let’s stop printing sets of values on gimmicky giveaways, and start living by them instead. Smile, and don’t be a villain.

Shaun Horan

What are universities for?

Mar 14, 2018

Halpin Partnership joint-CEO and Higher Education fellow Shaun Horan explores the role (and value) of universities…

Many years ago, an inspirational university leader told me that universities exist for three reasons:

Firstly, the preservation of eternal truths. This may sound very high flown, and indeed it is, but the point is quite simple. We need our great universities to teach the next generations the facts as we know them, and how to analyse, interpret and question them.

Secondly, the creation of new knowledge. A function less spoken about is the role of universities in life-changing research. Indeed, many former students will say that this is an aspect of the university that they had little knowledge or awareness of. In fact, the cures to many of the diseases that plague us today will be discovered on a campus somewhere, or at the very least will have been contributed to by research in a university lab. And it’s not just science. Pushing the limits on creative expression, producing great artists and thinkers – all the job of the academy.

Lastly, and even more high flown, their purpose is to perform a service to humanity. And it’s this last point that is crucial.

It seems that it might have once been accepted that a university education was a public good – having an amount of highly educated people was a good thing for any society and its economy. We need to extend human knowledge and enrich the human experience and very practically, we need teachers, doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists, engineers and so on. These were the drivers that motivated of the founders of our universities – those who fought to create universities across the country.

More recently the political narrative appears to have moved from the public good to the private good. University education is seen purely to benefit the individual – the common view appears to be that ‘you gain in income by experiencing Higher Education, therefore you pay for it’ – the student is now a ‘customer’ buying opportunity rather than a learner and a scholar contributing to the greater good.

The ‘student as customer’ sits perfectly within the view that higher education should be a marketplace, where competition is the order of the day. Customers should choose the institution which will best serve their interests and is most deserving of their fee.

Once we accept students as customers and HE as a marketplace then it is natural for us to consider a University as “a business”.

So does this matter? Is the press right to worry that university leaders are “fat cats”, exploiting students and staff? Or are those who see the running of universities as businesses in a marketplace, and driving improvements for students and greater efficiency, right?

I suspect the truth, as ever, is somewhere in between. There is nothing more important than education – it is the base from which everything else flows at its most fundamental level. Without it there are no professions, no medical advances, no informed debates on what is right and wrong. Universities are a part of an education system that should be viewed as a whole. People will tend to underline the parts that worked best for them – those who went to grammar schools may want to see more of them. Those who got a scholarship to a private school might be determined to send their own children into the same system, or to support more scholarships. A great comprehensive education might lead someone else to question whether the previous two types of education should exist at all.

No one answer has been found as to what is the “right” form of education. There is no one key to this – there are many doors with countless locks that work for some and not others. What we can say is that the university is a vital part of the system and can be an engine of social mobility. How they are viewed and run is therefore very important.

So should universities stand outside of the commercial world, and be run by people who are willing to do the job for significantly less money than seems to be the case at present? If we accept that some version of the three reasons for Universities to exist is correct, it’s clearly crucial that we get the answers right.

Universities should clearly be efficient and effective, and yes trustees from the business world bring some excellent experience to university councils, and can and should provide challenge. But for effective governance we need a mix of voices – those from non-profits as well as the commercial world. Universities are not “normal” organisations in the business sense. Academics do not generally work for them to simply draw a salary, but because of a profound interest and commitment to a particular area. Indeed, many will not consider that they work “for” the university at all. Leadership in these circumstances is highly challenging – a leader needs consent, if not always enthusiasm, to lead, but leading a team of people whose job is to challenge everything is not simple.

We need to bring some balance back to this debate. We should remember why universities exist, and crucial role they play in creating good societies. The public, as well as the private good. Open and reasoned debate should always be welcomed, and so should an examination when things go wrong. The market is a useful way of deciding some things, but not all. The life of an average business, before it morphs into something different, might be around 5-20 years. Most of our universities have been around in some form for a hundred years, sometimes a thousand. They need to be equipped to move with the times, but also to stand apart from those times, and do and preserve some of the things they have always done.

I hope in the continuing debates about HE, particularly in the light of the recently announced HE review, that we remember the long term, and the public good. Let’s put time and effort into good governance, and into strong and informed debate, so that we can leave our universities to continue performing a service to humanity. Those who know the price of everything, whatever their convictions, should not be the sole voice.

Shaun Horan

The Death of Liberal Arts? Or the Reunion of Broken Parts?

Mar 13, 2018

Halpin Partnership Higher Education fellow Tony Woodcock makes the case for Liberal Arts education in a STEM-obsessed world…

Many of us have seen Fareed Zakaria on CNN hosting his own show focused on international affairs. His style of journalism and reporting is penetrating, analytical and smacks of an intelligence that seems all too rare on TV these days.

In a book that Zakaria wrote in 2015, the polymath turns his attention to a domestic issue. In Defense of a Liberal Education challenges the hawks swooping down on the Liberal Arts in our universities. The predators include, most notably, the US President and the numerous states that are turning to performance-based funding of higher education. This financial mechanism provides incentives to schools that, among other metrics, increase the number of students graduating with degrees in “areas of strategic emphasis” like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

For regions, economies or institutions focused only on STEM, the Liberal Arts are considered an irrelevance. Why do we need degrees in History or Anthropology when what the country really needs to be competitive and successful is technological and scientific skills?

Zakaria is a persuasive advocate for the cause of Liberal Arts. He recounts the history of liberal education from the Greeks to modern times, questions the spiraling costs of contemporary higher education, and endorses the importance, in a truly egalitarian sense, of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). It is worth discussing his arguments and analyses. Indeed, I believe we will all find ourselves at some point fighting for the Liberal Arts either within our Schools or, externally, with accreditation bodies, curriculum designers, regulators and legislators. Zakaria’s book has inspired me to add my voice to this cause about which I feel so strongly.

I would like to start with some reflections on a design and innovation firm whose work I have found to be truly fascinating over the last several years, IDEO. This is how IDEO defines design thinking, “To be intuitive, recognise patterns, construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, to express ourselves through means beyond words and symbols. You can’t run a company on feelings, intuition and inspiration only, but on the other hand, an overreliance on the rational and analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking is the integrated third way.” And then on Education in the 21st Century the company advocates: “teaching people how to learn, engage and create. The creation of knowledge and the empowerment of individuals to participate, communicate and innovate.”

These are powerful statements that articulate a clear symbiosis between the Liberal Arts and business/technological training but without detriment to either. What a contrast to our current world, which increasingly sees education and societal structure in black and white terms, with science, financial skills, engineering, and technology as the keys to our future economic needs. My take on science as part of this mix is to paraphrase Clemenceau, and to say that science is much too important to be left just to scientists. In a similar vein is C.P. Snow’s cautionary words about placing too much emphasis on science in education: “So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world would have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have.” (C.P. Snow 1959)

Why this bifurcation between the Sciences and the Liberal Arts when our history from ancient Greek times onwards has consistently demonstrated that both come from the same well of human thought and discovery that IDEO describes as the “integrated third way?” If we go back to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th Century we see a return to humanist thinking based upon intellectual discoveries, curiosity, argument, thought, reflection, philosophy and critical thinking which are the very foundations of the Liberal Arts. And when we look at what was achieved as a result of this rebirth of passion for intellectual creativity from Michelangelo and da Vinci to the invention of the printing press and astronomy and the questioning of our place in the universe, it shows the potency of Liberal Arts discovery and thinking.

In his book, Zakaria plots a steady course through what he sees as the essential characteristics of a Liberal Arts education:

  • Reading, which provides a pathway into knowledge, self-awareness, critical thinking, curiosity, all touching upon the fundamental questions of the meaning of life.
  • Writing, which requires the student to structure his thoughts and arguments in a coherent, logical way.
  • Speaking, which arms the student with the confidence and skill to articulate his ideas and arguments in debate and discussion.
  • Learning how to learn, which is the basis of continuing education and self-exploration.

To Zakaria’s list, I would add Storytelling, which I believe fulfills a basic human need and is the wellspring of our collective consciousness. (Indeed, Zakaria himself is an outstanding example of a great storyteller.)

To demonstrate the critical importance of Liberal Arts-honed skills, Zakaria uses many stories and quotes from the corporate world. He tells of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and how he manages his creative team. Bezos insists that his senior management meetings begin with quiet time to allow his executives to read the up to six-page narratives spelling out proposals. “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” Or there is Steve Jobs insisting that “it is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with Liberal Arts, married with the Humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” Or Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, himself a classical liberal arts student who describes Facebook, one of the most extraordinary inventions of this century, “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

I might extend these conclusions and offer an even more radical recommendation: What if we propose for those in the job market a career path based on what technology and computers can’t do well? The machines can without doubt do all the mechanical stuff quicker and more accurately than humans. And for the future we will see many so-called mechanical jobs being automated, such as accountancy, data analysis, information processing, insurance, law and banking. It’s happening already after all.

So, where does the individual fit in if he isn’t to be the next victim of automation? Technology doesn’t do creativity and imagination. We humans do. And we get very stimulated doing just that through the Liberal Arts and the skills they give us. So, for me, we should focus on a whole list of skills and knowledge including languages, economics, history, music, film, writing, designing and entrepreneurship, but with technology as our handmaiden rather than the boss. This argument is already being understood in Europe and Asia. In fact, in Asia, businesses recognise that they are much too technology driven and that they lack the creativity that is the hallmark of American entrepreneurship.

In advocating for the Liberal Arts, I would make a particularly strong case for the study of music. Musicians, far from being too narrowly focused on a marginal subject area, possess the skills that our global world will want and need for the future. This was vividly demonstrated to me during a rehearsal and performance I was involved with as a violinist, of Mendelssohn’s Octet. Written in 1825 for four violins, two violas and two cellos, this astonishing masterpiece is the product of a 16-year old composer. It is an amazingly inventive work providing the players and audience a huge amount of joy and fun. It lasts about 30 minutes and it’s in four movements all of which are at different speeds and in quite different moods. The players I worked with for this rehearsal and performance were all excellent, had all completed the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell considers essential for mastery.

The actual musical score is complex. It is divided into eight separate lines so it’s a bit like being in a room with eight different people speaking all at the same time. The music is technically difficult to play but also very rewarding. The score gives you lots of information about how the composer wants the music performed but it also allows a great deal of flexibility and creativity to the performers. All the parts are important and if you are accompanying a melody it will be up to you to make this magical and special, lifting the melody player to all sorts of new heights of expression. To bring all this off is an exercise in some of the most intensive forms of communication and collaboration you could come across.

To begin with, communication works on a number of fronts. It can be observational, intuitive, and non-verbal. In other words a type of “telepathy” exists based purely upon listening and watching. Eyes are very important. Verbal communication and discussion are used as well during rehearsal, but within a performance, it is pretty much all non-verbal. Then there is consensus building within the group. How to decide through the various types of communication how something might go or how a problem can be resolved. The psychology of the group is as complex as the number of players and personalities. For each individual, there is analysis of the score and one’s own part in it, individual practice, managing one’s vulnerability, and working toward product improvement, all in the interest of making the performance as good as you can. Team building, leadership, mutual respect, dealing with challenges, focus, hard work, and sheer unadulterated creative magic bring the music to life. Now given all these skills and characteristics, what creative business would not want a musician as part of the team!? What’s more, you could never, ever have a computer come close to replicating this.

Zakaria is a compelling spokesman for the Liberal Arts. He shows unequivocally their importance in the cultural, economic and developmental world and how our world becomes threatened by the narrow focus of Manichean politics. He reminds us that we need all the many kinds of knowledge, or “the reunion of broken parts” which is the translation of the Arabic word “algebra.”

If our world is becoming fragmented in terms of our values then we should consider this reunion, the creation of the integrated third way, which allows value and importance to be granted to all our thinking.

Tony Woodcock Halpin Partnership Higher Education Fellow