How Plymouth University and Brain Tumour Research formed a successful partnership

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How Plymouth University and Brain Tumour Research formed a successful partnership


Christian Burden, director of development at Plymouth University, explains how the uni found the perfect charity partner to fundraise with, and the elements that make it so successful


With funding streams becoming ever more competitive, both for charities and research institutions, it makes enormous sense for the two to combine forces where appropriate.

Having a common aim is a good place to start. At Plymouth University, we have a long and proven track record of outstanding research in neuroscience, especially in relation to low-grade brain tumours. The head of our neuroscience research team at Plymouth University, Professor Hanemann, has a longstanding relationship with Brain Tumour Research – and so when the charity put out a call for candidates for three research centres of excellence to join its first in Portsmouth, he recognised this was too good an opportunity to ignore, and made sure we were well represented in that call.


Stronger together

We knew that with the charity’s support, we could develop our already excellent science offering to make it even stronger. Working with Professor Hanemann, the University pulled together its marketing, PR and media, campaign, fundraising, community relations and events expertise, and together we compiled a comprehensive case for support.

In the first round, this comprised a document outlining how the various elements of our external relations team would work together to meet the charity’s objectives. We expressed our ideas about how we could open up new audiences for Brain Tumour Research by promoting the partnership through our strong connections with our alumni and strategic partners in the region.

We also highlighted the mutual benefits of running joint fundraising programmes: the university’s well-established fundraising programme in the South West would boost the charity’s own fundraising in the region, while the university would benefit from the charity’s strong national profile, and overall fundraising would be more streamlined and efficient than if we ran separate programmes.

The second round involved a visit from Brain Tumour Research, during which our external relations team had the opportunity to go into further detail about the individual elements of the package. It was also a chance for our team to meet the charity’s own campaigns, marketing and PR representatives, so that we ourselves could gain a deeper understanding of the charity’s offering and the mutual benefits this would confer.

The visit included a tour of our laboratory space and meetings with our neuroscience team. There was an instant rapport between the charity’s and the university’s teams, and a true understanding of shared objectives and aims. Each representative from our external relations team felt they would be able to happily work with their opposite number at Brain Tumour Research.

The way we wanted to work together was, however, new to both of us. We knew it would entail mutual trust and support – and the key to this was maintaining open lines of communication at every stage, and talking issues through until common ground was reached. This allowed us to constructively address and overcome any early challenges; for example, how to co-brand our activities.

Embracing the core values of another organisation while remaining true to your own requires a careful balancing act, and we achieved this by majoring on our shared values – commitment to world class research and changing lives – and by respecting each other’s brand via a dual brand policy. As part of this, we designed a new logo in which both brands were equally represented.


Open-minded and flexible

Another challenge we encountered early on was how to develop a campaign strategy while the partner relationship was itself evolving. We achieved this by remaining open-minded and flexible – with of course the commitment to constant communication and discussion. Monthly steering group meetings, involving our external relations team and representatives from Brain Tumour Research, allow us to put activities into action quickly and in mutual agreement – for example, the adoption of Brain Tumour Research as an official charity of the university, which evolved in the first few months of our partnership and which we were able to put into place comparatively quickly.

The monthly meetings are also an opportunity to regularly discuss what has been working well and what hasn’t, so we can alter the course of our activities appropriately. In any partnership, it’s important to learn from what doesn’t work, as much as from what does, and adapt as necessary.

Allowing the relationship to evolve, rather than setting our strategy in stone from the outset, has given us the flexibility to be reactive and creative. Some of the most inventive and successful activities we have carried out to date would not have been possible without this level of flexibility.


Off to a good start

This is a five-year partnership and we are only one year in, so it is early days. However, we have already established Brain Tumour Research as the charity of choice for many of our community partners, for our student union, and for the university itself. We have achieved this by ‘working’ our considerable alumni and community network, and a prime example is our relationship with bank Santander in Plymouth. Bank staff run and support fundraising events, and we have established a match funding arrangement for some activities.

We have also established a 'Wall of Hope' at our laboratories, where donors who have raised enough money to fund a day of research (£2,740) can place a tile to commemorate their donation – this is already filling up nicely.

Meanwhile, we have helped Brain Tumour Research to further build its own profile, not just in the South West but further afield – for example, the head of media for our medical school was instrumental in securing a press briefing for Brain Tumour Research at the Science Media Centre, which has resulted in national media coverage and a better understanding of the complex issues around brain tumours among national health and science journalists.

Furthermore, we have established a campaign strategy for our partnership with Brain Tumour Research aimed at widening the catchment for donation and support to include businesses, high-net-worth individuals, alumni and community groups across Devon and Cornwall. This includes working closely with Brain Tumour Research’s South West fundraiser, who has recently been appointed.

Our ambition for the future is to build on this campaign strategy and achieve our target of raising £1m per year.


An enriching collaboration

The model we’ve come up with together is one of true partnership – as well as providing collaborative opportunities for researchers with shared interests across the UK and supporting research in its centres, Brain Tumour Research also expects its university partners to actively fundraise and raise awareness of the charity and the condition for which it lobbies in the local area.

We are finding our relationship with Brain Tumour Research to be mutually enriching at many levels. With the right approach, we think that other charity/university partnerships will find that too.


Christian Burden is director of development at Plymouth University

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