The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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Why university fundraising is racing ahead

Why university fundraising is racing ahead

Philanthropic giving to higher education has grown by 23% in the last year. Four universities provide insight into the principles and methods that are driving this encouraging trend


Joanne Donahoe, director, Office of Development & Alumni Relations at the University of Southampton:

Putting engagement firmly on the table

The release of the annual Ross-CASE Survey of Charitable Giving to Universities results is akin to Christmas morning in my books. I really look forward to the survey results – to understand how the University of Southampton performed (of course!) and the sector as a whole.


The results, which showed university fundraising surpass the £1bn per year milestone for the first time, are crucial for establishing a strong evidence base for investment or spotting trends. They highlight direct correlations in capacity building and significant increases in philanthropy – Leeds and Birmingham being two great examples.


This year’s survey is against a backdrop of significant discussions around fundraising regulation and best practice. But let’s not forget that philanthropic success over the long term is rooted in meaningful engagement with our constituents – the supporter journey is key.  


In 2015 Southampton launched its first fundraising campaign; its aim being to raise £25m. We are building the nation’s first dedicated centre for cancer immunology. Through a compelling case for support, senior buy-in, engagement with academics, students and staff, embracing new ways of giving and technology, an improvement in team culture and a very talented major gifts team, we saw a tripling in income and donors in three years.  


We raised the sights of our donor community, the university and ourselves and as a result, we are planning our first comprehensive campaign. This is all very exciting and may sound fairly textbook… but our success needs sustainability, and our next campaign will only truly succeed if we put engagement firmly on the table with philanthropy.  


‘Engagement’ may be the new buzzword, but simply it is your opportunity to deepen donor loyalty and philanthropy for the long term and to focus the interests and passions of your supporters around university priority areas.  


What does this look like in practice for us? Our regular giving team is now in our alumni relations and supporter engagement team, giving us that crucial link between philanthropy and engagement. We are launching the university’s first-ever alumni engagement campaign, we have growing partnerships with the careers, student recruitment and international departments and we are part of the engagement and advancement directorate with our colleagues in communications and marketing. We measure ROI by way of an engagement metric combining giving, event participation, active alumni and, soon, engagement via our communication channels. Next year we want to measure our impact on employability, student recruitment and brand/reputation.


There may be a time when future Ross-CASE surveys will measure the impact of engagement. Imagine data points linked to the number of internships alumni can offer, the impact of online mentoring on student employability, the effect that opening doors into industry can have on research income, the influence alumni can have on prospective students and parents. It’s not easy to capture but boy, those figures open eyes to the scale and impact of our work.


My advice for success – be compliant, get the fundamentals right in your teams and link engagement and philanthropy at every opportunity – your evidence base to demonstrate impact will be that much stronger, and your alumni and supporters will enjoy a more meaningful relationship with your organisation.


Ben Ralston, senior development manager at the University of Bath:

Transparency engenders donor confidence

At the University of Bath, keeping up with trends in philanthropic giving is, in many ways, more about keeping up with our donors.


The amount of information that our constituents consume, on a daily basis, means that nearly every discovery meeting is with a prospect who knows more about higher education and philanthropic giving than the last.


With our established donors, the challenge is even greater. They often view their giving as a personal investment in higher education. They file away every news story that might affect their investment to bring up during our conversations and measure our responses against the national and global conversation. The only way to keep up with our donors and their rapidly growing knowledge is through increased transparency.


Philanthropic giving has always relied heavily on trust. However, it is no longer the case that alumni will trust their alma mater simply due to their affiliation and affinity. Donors want to feel confident that their gifts will not only support programmes that will have a positive impact, but that they will be managed well by the finance office, used responsibly by students and researchers and leveraged for additional funding. That confidence is built through transparency. Fundraisers might often feel the urge to maintain flexibility through ambiguity. But donors are savvy. In fact, being savvy is usually a prerequisite to being in a financial position to make philanthropic gifts. They can immediately sense when we are being vague and it can erode trust quickly.


This focus on transparency and trust is why, at the University of Bath, even preliminary conversations about our new Gold Scholarship Programme involve discussions about government policy on student loans, detailed explanations of widening participation criteria and university budget allocations for matched funding, as well as administrative expenses for the programme.


We will always need to deliver the heartwarming messages about students who are most in need of support and the opportunities that philanthropic funding creates. Those are the messages that motivate our donors to give. However, increasingly, it is trust and transparency that convinces them to do so.


Lara Jukes, director of development at the Institute of Cancer Research, London:

Building on mutual trust and understanding

The past 18 months at The Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR), have been a success for fundraising. We have boosted our efforts in the digital space, particularly leveraging social media to increase supporter engagement. Working closely with our communications team we have developed novel, engaging content that can be shared with our supporters both online and off.


We have also put greater emphasis on fundraising partnerships with smaller, often family-led, charities that are passionate about a particular area of research. With their support, we can carry out specific research projects that connect to their cause, which can have significant impact on defeating cancer.


A good example of this has been the continued support of the parent-led Christopher’s Smile, whose fundraising for childhood cancer research at the ICR has led to a new blood test to make some children’s cancer treatment more targeted.


It is an honour and privilege to work with these small charities – their founders are often all too close to the tragic consequences of cancer and are determined to make a difference for others who might be affected. They help us reach new audiences or people we may not otherwise reach and we offer access to the ICR’s world class research, and our professional fundraising and communication expertise.


We have also created a proposition for venture philanthropy as part of a capital fundraising campaign for a new drug discovery building. This allows us to talk to donors from the financial sector in a language that they are comfortable with, and demonstrate clear impact. We have noticed that our donors and prospective donors want to engage more deeply with our research, and they want to see more tangible effects from their philanthropy than ever before.


As fundraisers we need to be very responsive to individual donor needs and specific circumstances. You might build a relationship with a prospective donor over quite a few years – often getting to the point where you think they may never give. But then suddenly – because of a business transaction, or a change in personal circumstances – the situation changes. And if they already know that you are the best in the field – because you have kept them informed of developments – they can be very generous indeed.


Ultimately, philanthropy continues to be about building long-term relationships of mutual understanding and respect between universities (or charities) and their donors. If you can do that, then by working together you can do a tremendous amount of good.


Caroline Waters, head of corporate affairs at the University of Suffolk:

Embedding a culture of giving

In 2015/16 the University of Suffolk gained taught degree awarding powers and university status. We had not actively engaged in fundraising previously. However, the university has at the centre of its mission a responsibility to be a new type of civic university – embedded, influential and a focus of societal and economic change in all the communities it serves. Therefore philanthropy serves to form a major part of our future, allowing us to expand our activity beyond our current means and engage our communities in different and interesting ways.


In November 2015, we formed a foundation board made up of high-profile volunteers who committed to support our fundraising efforts. Working with the Corporate Affairs Office, who report directly to the vice-chancellor, the foundation board has launched a founding supporter campaign to raise the profile of our philanthropic efforts, embed a culture of giving across the university and attract donors at all levels.


By the end of the 2015/16 academic year we were able to invite staff, students and the students’ union to apply for funds from our first disbursement round, making awards from an £18,000 pot to student and staff projects. The success of the campaign has continued to grow – we are nearing £50,000 in gifts and associated Gift Aid from over 40 donors, many making annual or monthly gifts. We have launched a give-as-you-earn scheme, encouraging a culture of giving and have seen a number of staff to choose to make regular gifts to us.


If we compare ourselves to the rest of the sector this is a very small figure, but we have had the confidence and conviction to start our philanthropic journey. A voluntary foundation board has been invaluable; it has increased engagement, opened doors that our staff could not and given us credibility when we have no real track record of managing and delivering philanthropically.


The appeal of giving to a university for a donor clearly differs depending on their motivation, however we believe our donors are supporting us because they know that even the smallest gift will have a large and immediate impact on current students. Alongside this, they are contributing to the growth of an institution which is only a year old in its current form, but will one day be 500 years old. Our current donors are laying the foundations for us to grow and widen our impact on our communities, they really are making a difference to education, research, aspiration building, entrepreneurship and social mobility.


We are experiencing very unsettled times. I believe if you commit to patiently building good relationships developed on a foundation of shared values, interests and trust, then you will continue to attract support. Welcoming people in for them to get a much greater understanding of what you do and where your potential lies is time consuming, but essential. A development office needs the support of the most senior staff in an institution and they need to be prepared to be accessible to the team and dedicate time to making new friends and developing relationships. 


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