The future of university fundraising: How a little love from Loughborough is going a long way

As a fundraiser, how do you know you’re doing a good job? The answer used to be simple, but you might have noticed that the tides are slowly turning in university fundraising. Where the achievement of an ambitious multi-year campaign target may have been the barometer 5 or 10 years ago, success in 2017 is being defined by a growing tribe of fundraisers as something less headline-grabbing but altogether more exciting.

Until now, the prevailing approach to mass fundraising in Higher Education has been, for want of a better word, transactional. Many institutions have dehumanised their lower level donors (‘LYBUNTS’ and ‘SYBUNTS’), chosen to benchmark their progress only on donor numbers and income, and have taken little interest in who their own supporters are, why they give and what they think of the whole arrangement.

A healthy supporter relationship is not unlike any other healthy relationship in your life – it means work on both sides and not treating someone who cares about you like a cash machine. These transactional institutions might get the big numbers, but look closely and you may find donor retention troubles, limited supporter advocacy and high staff turnover. In other words, growing programmes at these institutions is an expensive slog.

This is where the 2017 fundraiser comes in. Like the team at Stanford University who recently ended their telethon, these fundraisers are recognising that meaningful supporter relationships based on quality alumni and donor experiences is a more ambitious and rewarding goal to aim for. This means that they are reaching out to their alumni and supporters, getting to know them and making changes. They are establishing and building relationships that will bear fruit not only during their tenure, but for the fundraisers of 2027 and beyond.

I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we have the evidence that these relationship fundraisers achieve even bigger numbers than their transactional counterparts, too. It may not be because their donors are happier, nor because their donors are bigger advocates… It might just be because all the best fundraisers want to work with them.

How Loughborough is starting a quiet revolution

I have been on the lookout for examples of this fresh fundraising perspective in higher education, and last month when I met with Rachel Third, Head of Philanthropy at Loughborough, I knew I’d found one.

I have known Rachel since she was a CASE graduate trainee at Nottingham and I am not the least bit surprised that 6 years later she is a senior leader in university fundraising and fast on her way to becoming an influencer.

After joining the team at Loughborough in 2016, Rachel was motivated to get up to speed as soon as possible and make plans to grow the University’s philanthropy programme. One of her first objectives was typical of a relationship fundraiser; getting to know the institution’s alumni and donors.

“I was 7 months into my role when I realised that while I’d had quite a few one-to-one conversations with some of our higher-level donors, I couldn’t put a face to the casual event attendee, occasional Loughborough publication reader or lower-level donor who may be interested in doing more or leaving a gift in their will. To be successful, I thought I need to put a face to that person.”

Rather than relying on data analysis, her first port of call was seeing if alumni and donor research studies already been conducted. Unfortunately, no qualitative research had yet been undertaken, but an interesting group emerged in a recent alumni survey – those who said they’d left a gift in their will to Loughborough.

Rachel knew that getting to know Loughborough’s legacy ‘intenders’ was a great place to start given these were people who had shared something so personal with the University. Rachel felt this commitment was worthy of a response, and ideally one equally as personal. So, with the help of two enthusiastic new graduates in her office, they called each of their legacy intenders for a chat.

“We were surprised by how welcome the calls were. When we had to leave messages, they’d return our calls and they’d sometimes try a few times to get hold of us if we were out!”

It’s logical that these alumni would be interested in hearing from their university – after all, completely unprompted, they’d made a commitment to the University in their will. But Rachel found that many of these individuals did not look like typically ‘engaged’ alumni on paper.

“You’d open up their record in the database and you’d see they’d been sent a couple of event invitations that they hadn’t necessarily even been to. In terms of their contact with the University, I’d say it was low level.”

She has found that many had sustained their connection with Loughborough through following the University in the mainstream news, meeting up with friends from their university days or through having their son or daughter attend the institution – things that she and her team would not be able to spot in the database.

She plans to reflect this knowledge, along with her team’s richer understanding of these individuals, their interests and their motivations for giving in bespoke communications and events.

But it’s not just a more tailored programme and deeper alumni relationships that Loughborough has gained through this process, Rachel has seen other benefits of equal value.

“When the calls were being made, the whole office’s energy levels just lifted. It was amazing to hear the phones ringing, conversations being had. Everyone said it was great to have that energy going through the whole room.”

What we can learn from Rachel’s example

You may find Rachel’s method straightforward, logical even, but it is unusual.  As a leader, she recognised the importance of getting to know all kinds of donors, not just major donors, and involved her team in the process. She is creating a team culture that values relationship building at all levels and that respects the very personal nature of philanthropy.

Having heard from the legacy intenders herself, she knows the limitations of categorising people according to behaviours or demographics in the database. In future decisions, she will intuitively know how these are likely to affect ‘Sally from Sawley’ because these are real people to her, not just numbers.

It may be simple, but this example has the hallmarks of relationship fundraising to me. It tells me that Loughborough is prioritising work that puts them in touch directly with their supporter base, even if this isn’t going to pay off financially in the near future.

So are you a 2017 fundraiser?

I know there are more fundraisers out there like Rachel who are keen to be at the forefront of this change, many of whom may have been inspired by the Commission on the Donor Experience’s work or even Stanford’s story.

If you are becoming disillusioned with transactional fundraising at your institution and don’t know where to start, I would be keen to hear from you. Equally, if you are making changes to bring your team on board with a more exciting way of working – I’d love to tell your story. Get in touch!


Leave a Reply