An interview with Donald Tillman, Executive Director ETH Foundation

In 2019, 23 percent of newly established foundations had education and research as their purpose area. This is slightly more than the percentage for the existing ones. One of the well-established foundations is the ETH Foundation. Its executive director, Donald Tillman, talks about the importance of philanthropy to education and research.

How important is philanthropy to education in Switzerland?

For education and research, philanthropy is an important accelerator, a “forward mover.” Of course, in Switzerland, education, be it primary, vocational or higher education, as well as research are traditionally important public tasks. Accordingly, these areas are solidly subsidized by the public sector. And that’s a good thing. The Confederation, cantons and municipalities provide a stable financial basis for the Swiss education system. They are the foundation of our top education, which we know is held in high esteem worldwide. However, the importance of private support is clearly increasing. This is because public funds are sufficient to continue what already exists, but seldom enough to make new things possible quickly enough.

How well does philanthropy work in education?

Thanks to private funds, the patrons, foundations and private individuals, can set decisive impulses, get stones rolling. Philanthropy, after all, is not just about “helping,” but also about “enabling.” And that is exactly what philanthropy in education and research intends to do: e.g., enable new forms of learning, make studying affordable for talented people, tackle unknown research topics with new professorships, contribute to answers to the pressing questions of the time, even solve them. The great success lies in the combination of public and private funds.

Can you give an example?

The polar regions play a crucial role in climate change – also with regard to the possible rise in sea level. To this end, ETH wants to establish new research and will also be able to finance 80 percent of it itself; however, to get started, it is looking for and needs donors and foundations. Or the new Center for Quantum and Materials Research: With start-up funding, benefactors can make possible what otherwise would’nt move forward. It is precisely such interaction between the public sector and philanthropy that is crucial.

Who are the key players in education?

Foundations play a crucial role. With their distributions, they are a big driver of innovation. Sometimes foundations provide collaborative support, creating new programs of invaluable, lasting value. Private individuals, with smaller or even larger contributions, depending on their possibilities, are another catalyst. The ETH Foundation tries to mediate here and bring different parties together. And not to forget companies that are aware that innovations require strong research – and beyond their own horizons. More and more people are also including the ETH Zurich Foundation in their wills and asking us how this can be done properly.

Where does the private money come from?

At ETH today, 75 percent comes from government sources and 25 percent is privately or semi-privately funded. And it is precisely this additional 25 percent that makes it possible for ETH to continue to develop and maintain its top position among universities nationally and internationally.

Do you have an example?

A very obvious one: With Corona, enormous efforts are now needed, especially at the universities and in the ETH laboratories. On the one hand, ETH undertakes these efforts from its own resources, and on the other hand, private funding makes important additional projects possible. Many private individuals and numerous small foundations are contributing to these projects in order to find a solution to the current health crisis as quickly as possible. We have therefore set up a fund. A wide variety of contributions come together, starting at 100 francs. Every contribution is important and helps. We bundle the donations and are happy to show how the money actually helps to achieve. Together with the patrons and partners we want to solve the upcoming challenges or contribute something to the solution.

And what are the biggest challenges for philanthropy in education?

Foundations want to generate progress. There are currently huge challenges that we want to meet: Be it dementia due to demographic aging, the CO2 problem, the energy strategy and the associated climate change or the urgent need for sustainable building materials. Research and well-trained people are needed to solve these problems. The recipe for success also contains other important ingredients. But most important are education and research.

Another challenge when it comes to philanthropy in research and education is that it usually takes a long time for the impact of a grant to become visible. This means that the necessary confidence is needed that the donated funds will also have the intended effect. Supporting research and education is not a short-term commitment, but a long-term one. Some foundations, on the other hand, would like to see a success report within six months. And that’s hard to do in the education environment.

What do you personally donate to and what is your motivation?

As I said, progress begins with education and research. I draw my motivation from the urge to help make this progress happen, on a smaller and larger scale. I am committed to mobilizing even more support for science so that challenges can be solved.

Where are you involved in volunteering?

I have various volunteering activities. Currently, I helping secondary school students choosing a career by matching them with professionals. I am also active in organizing the neighborhood, something very crucial from my point of view. And a third area has always been youth and sports, which also fits with what I do today, empowerment in education and research. In both areas, you empower young people to create solutions.

About the author

Donald Tillman

Donald Tillman studied cultural engineering at ETH Zurich in the late 1980s. After graduating, he initially worked for three years as a project manager at the Holinger company in Baden. In the fall of 1995, he went to the U.S., where he earned a Master of Engineering in civil and environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He then wrote his dissertation on “Stakeholder analysis in water supply systems” at the EAWAG water research institute in Dübendorf. After completing his doctorate, he joined the asset management company SAM Sustainable Asset Management as a senior equity analyst. In March 2006, Donald Tillman took over the management of the ETH Foundation.