An interview with Gifford Combs
Ask Gifford Combs, MPhil (Queens’ 1983), what type of projects he likes to support philanthropically and he will use an interesting word: “orphans”.
Mr Combs goes on to say: “I look for projects that other people aren’t necessarily interested in supporting; but they are projects that contribute to the larger fabric and make Cambridge a better place to live.”
While Mr Combs seeks out funding opportunities where others might not, one thing is very important to him: he’s eager to find projects that enrich the wider ecosystem of the University and help to ensure Cambridge as a whole is a fantastic place to both live and study. “People remember going to Evensong and the Fitzwilliam and the libraries.” As he sees it, these institutions, and many others, enhance the cultural life of the University and city and make it a special place.
They’re the elements of the fabric of civilisation that make life worth living, so to speak. It’s important we continue to pay attention to them.
Mr Combs’s first significant gift to Cambridge supported an illuminated manuscripts exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. “I essentially gave them enough money so that they could get the project off the ground”, says Mr Combs. Get it off the ground they did – thanks in large measure to his support, it turned out to be the Fitzwilliam’s most successful exhibition up until that point and the largest exhibition of manuscripts in the British Isles in the past 100 years.
From Fellowships to furniture
Since that time Mr Combs, a member of the Guild of Benefactors, the University’s top recognition circle, has generously supported numerous other projects across the Colleges and University. For example, when he saw that Sidney Sussex College could benefit from a Classics Teaching Fellow, Mr Combs established a joint Teaching Fellowship post between the Faculty of Classics and the College. Not all of his gifts support such high-profile projects, though. When the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College was renovated and the reading room moved, Mr Combs ensured there was comfortable and proper furniture for readers - again helping to make Cambridge a better place. One of the gifts Mr Combs is most proud of was used for the repainting of the Queens’ College sundial. “A graduate student passing through Old Court everyday might appreciate it and it might make his life a little nicer.”
A leading and 'open' university
In addition to supporting Cambridge philanthropically, Mr Combs also gives generously of his time, having served in various volunteer capacities, including the US Campaign Planning Committee for the last campaign. As a member of the Cambridge in America Board, he encourages others to get involved. “There are a lot of fascinating individuals who are willing to talk. I’ve enjoyed getting to know so many different people at lots of different Colleges and faculties. If you ask people what they do, they’ll start talking. If you’re interested in things, there’s a lot to learn. I strongly encourage others to do the same. I think people would be surprised how open the University is.”
As much as he cares about and enjoys the day-to-day life at Cambridge, Mr Combs also believes that the University must remain a strong and vital part of the international community. “If you want to back a winner, and most of us do, you have a relatively small handful of institutions to choose from. Cambridge is a leader in many fields. We need to make sure it can compete for the best students and faculty on an international basis.” And while the economist in Mr Combs appreciates how efficiently the University is run, he also realises that “excellence costs exponentially more than good”.
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