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The Challenge of Change in HE Fundraising

Higher Education fundraising has long been characterised by the unusual status that universities enjoy within the philanthropic sector; as is often observed, universities are usually associated exclusively with academic excellence rather than charitable support, something which is a mixed blessing for the sector. Unlike most charities, a university has a base of thousands of contactable potential donors in the form of its alumni community, yet it can be hard to break down the disconnect that exists in people’s minds between Higher Education and philanthropy. Why would someone choose to give to a university alongside a well-established and well-known charity?

There are some signs of hope. The 2015/16 academic year saw British universities raise more than £1 billion in donations and pledges for the first time ever, a landmark achievement for this relatively young sector. Over the last decade, university fundraising has grown significantly as individual institutions have expanded their own development operations, more alumni have become donors and the economy has recovered following the Great Recession, and a 2014 Coutts report showed that universities receive more million-pound donations than any other fundraising sector. However, new challenges mean that the terrain is likely to change significantly – how will universities cope with these shifts?

The creation of the new fundraising regulator and the potential for a further tightening of the rules that govern fundraising practice are obvious examples of immediate challenges which could have a real impact on the future of philanthropy over the coming years. In particular, the recommendation earlier this year that charities only contact people who have explicitly opted in to receive fundraising communications would cause charities and universities to substantially alter their approach. However, there are other issues which could undermine the future of fundraising in this sector, and development offices across the country will have to reconsider the way in which they build relationships with their alumni if they are to continue to flourish.

The growth of university development has brought substantial financial rewards to Higher Education institutions, yet this must always be balanced alongside building positive and engaged relationships with our alumni. In order to build relationships that are mutually beneficial in the long-term, universities must adopt more personalised forms of contact, particularly when approaching young alumni. Statistics suggest that young graduates are unlikely to engage in fundraising and those who do give are difficult to retain. This is likely to spread beyond recent graduates in the coming years, as the alumni community becomes more and more dominated by those who have experienced the current tuition fees regime. Could this be a ticking time bomb for universities, as the generations of affluent alumni who enjoyed a free education are fast being replaced by those who are still paying off vast student loans?

The future of philanthropy in the Higher Education sector looks set to be one marked by change and the adoption of new methods and frameworks if the progress of the last decade is to continue. This may sometimes mean considering radical and controversial approaches, such as the decision of Stanford University to discontinue their phonathon last year after alumni complained that the calls actually made them less likely to donate. Only time will tell whether such changes will be successful, but universities must be willing to experiment in order to work out their best strategy for building strong relationships. After all, university fundraising has only succeeded thus far because it has been willing to adapt, and that will continue to be the case in the years ahead.