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Johnian magazine issue 51, autumn 2023

Strength in numbers: a decade of student philanthropy at St John’s

Written by Will Romeu-Evans

3 min read

The groundbreaking Go Forward Give Back fundraising campaign has now been running for nearly a decade. Senior Development Officer Will Romeu-Evans reflects on how it all began and its successes to date.

‘Once a Johnian, always a Johnian’, I mumbled aloud, lifting a pen bearing the motto from a recent delivery of College merchandise. But is there a point at which one becomes a Johnian? This was the question facing me and Robert Cashman (2012), JCR President 2013/14, on a bright, cold day in Second Court almost 10 years ago. Is it when you receive the acceptance letter? Or during that first Buttery lunch? Or perhaps it is at some mystical, undefined point during one’s journey through SJC when one is imbued with an unexpected sense of belonging and ancient duty? The latter was a slightly tongue-in-cheek addition that we couldn’t rule out entirely. Most likely it’s at the point of matriculation we agreed, when St John’s assumes its duty of care to educate, nurture and support, and when the person matriculating is given their opportunity to play a role in the life and well-being of the College.

Smiling graduands sit on the steps in Chapel Court. They are dressed in summery outfits and some are eating ice creams.

This was more than a reflective chat between friendly colleagues; we had been tasked with assembling a crack team of students who could help launch the College’s first fundraising challenge to graduands. The concept might appear ostensibly counterintuitive (shouldn’t we be raising money for our students, after all?) but it was met with unanimous enthusiasm. So many of those involved had received financial support themselves, whether in the form of a bursary, scholarship or grant, or were close to somebody at St John’s who had. The desire to give back in a meaningful way was high on student agendas and it was against this encouraging backdrop that the groundbreaking Go Forward, Give Back initiative was launched.

Go Forward Give Back brochure is balanced on a hedge in the Master's garden. Behind it are some flowers and the Bridge of Sighs.

The premise of Go Forward, Give Back (GFGB) is simple and is designed to be accessible to all members of our graduand community, regardless of their financial circumstance, as it focuses on participation – the act of giving back – rather than the amount donated. In brief, as our finalists approach graduation they are asked to make a gift, however small, to support an area of life at St John’s that they care about. If a certain proportion (say 40–50%) make a gift, then a larger ‘challenge’ gift, generously provided by an alumnus/a of St John’s, is released. In turn this challenge gift provides much-needed financial assistance to the next intake of Johnian students – creating a cycle of support encompassing past, present and future vintages. It’s really very wholesome.

The overwhelming support Go Forward, Give Back received at its launch party in the College Bar in Spring 2014 has been echoed or surpassed each year since, with the only exception being the three-year hiatus during the pandemic. Around half of all graduands choose to make a gift in support of St John’s before journeying into the wider world each year (around 15% of Johnian alumni give back annually, by comparison), and almost a thousand gifts have been received by the campaign to date. This show of community spirit is essential as it clearly communicates to alumni, friends and charitable foundations that Johnian students are proud and proactive in their support for their college. In addition to this show of goodwill and gratitude, to date more than £135,000 has been raised in donations and challenge funding – an amount which has had a truly transformative impact on our ability to support Johnian students in financial need.

A bike seat with a pot of ice cream on it. The ice cream pot says 'Jack's Gelato' on it and a wooden spoon sticks out of the top. It looks like a chocolate ice cream.

From tentative beginnings, Go Forward, Give Back has swiftly become the most successful initiative of its kind among Cambridge colleges, and we could not be more grateful to the recent graduates and challenge fund donors who have made this possible. Here’s to another incredible decade!

Do you want to know more about the Go Forward, Give Back initiative or could you be our next challenge fund donor? Please email for more information, or visit our giving pages to learn more about supporting St John’s.

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Will is Senior Development Officer (Annual Giving) at St John’s College.