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Thanks to a large donation by a generous donor, my department has an "institute" that they use to host seminar speakers, subsidize student travel, support postdocs, and host social engagements. I have been asked to administer this institute for the next two years, and have to give a presentation on my plans for it at an upcoming meeting. My problem is that I do not have any additional creative ideas to use this donation beyond the uses I just listed. Has anyone had past experiences for creative/innovative ways to use donations of this sort?

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  • Have you tried soliciting input from your faculty?
    – Kimball
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 3:39
  • What does "large donation" mean? Can we get the order of magnitude? Recommendations would be different, e.g., for 100k $ than for 10M $. Has the donor expressed any wishes regarding how the money is used?
    – user9482
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 5:21
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    @Roland it's about $100K per year...I guess that seems large to me :) Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 6:10
  • The field of research would also be relevant. Different disciplines have different funding requirements.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 7:36
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    Do they want you to do more or different things? Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 17:43

2 Answers 2

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I might add more ideas later if they come to mind, but here’s a few off the top of my head; you may find them interesting depending on whether something already exists at your institute/department.

  1. Nursing room: At the (academic) research institute that I work at, we’ve been working on establishing and maintaining a nursing room for members of the institute. Some space with privacy, comfortable seating, a sink (for cleaning) etc. (Your university might have guidelines for how to setup a nursing room.)
  2. Conference room with good hybrid meeting equipment: Given that so many talks (including Ph.D. defenses) are hybrid lately, it might be worth it to upgrade an existing conference room with good audiovisual equipment. Good audio speakers, microphones that allow for remote audiences to hear questions asked by in-person audiences etc.
  3. Awards for students: Depending on how much money is available and depending on existing institute/departmental awards, you could consider setting up awards for students for excellence in research and/or service.
  4. Physical spaces for students: Since in most departments/institutes graduate students don’t have individual offices and undergrads have no offices at all, it could be nice to setup lounge areas/rooms for students to convene at. If such spaces already exist, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a new couch if you’re able to fund it!
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There are certain things that professors and departments are not particularly good at, but that can be addressed with money if you're willing to hire someone -- and depending on how generous the donation really is.

Specifically, what often does not work well at all in academia is strategic planning. (That's because the reward structure for professors does not provide much support for long-range planning in both their own careers and, in particular, in support of the department's mission. And departments these days largely no longer have anyone else who has the stature to address strategic things.) So things such as "Where do we want to go with the department?" and "How do we reform the Calculus sequence?" or "How do we help faculty bring modern teaching methods into their classrooms?" are the kinds of questions that just never really get addressed.

As a consequence, if your Institute also has a teaching mission, then you might want to consider hiring someone with, say, a PhD and who sits between the disciplinary aspects and the educational aspects to take a holistic look at the course offerings, course designs, and other aspects of those courses that fall within the Institute's area. If they are also teaching these kinds of courses, the Department will likely be willing to co-fund their teaching duties whereas the Institute will fund the planning and design aspects of their work.

In the research realm, one could hire a coordinator to build inter-displinary and inter-departmental connections, support collaborative grant writing, outreach to industry partners who may be interested in the research produced by the Institute, etc. There too, the "long range planning" aspect is something one could ask that person to do, and if they do not have teaching responsibilities and only a small research expectation, they may have the time and energy to do the planning that faculty often don't.

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