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!


Barriers to relationship fundraising in Higher Education

By virtue of my specialism in alumni and supporter experience research, I have the great pleasure of working with universities who either practice relationship fundraising or are well on their way. This is because one of the common behaviours of a relationship fundraiser, as I wrote earlier this year, is seeking to understand audiences through research and regular dialogue.

I have also experienced the darker side of higher education fundraising having undertaken a mystery shopping exercise with 15 UK universities. I was dismayed that so few attempted to welcome me and get to know me – and how many actually managed to cause offence.

It’s fair to say that while some universities are doing great things, several are still struggling to turn the tide of transactional fundraising – or aren’t interested in doing so.

Also, I love my clients very, very much.

Today, timely as ever, Rogare has published another thoughtful report into relationship fundraising. This one focuses on the barriers that exist to implementing a relationship fundraising approach. Cultural issues, no clear definition of what relationship fundraising is, a lack of evidence for increased performance and no agreed way to measure success are the barriers that rang true to me.

Interestingly, universities are mentioned in this report as a potential source of case studies for relationship fundraising with High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs). This troubles me somewhat, as while I agree that we are fantastic at looking after higher-level donors, many institutions are not off the starting blocks when it comes to their smaller-gift donors. Given relationship fundraising’s origins are with the mass audience, I have a few theories as to why we are encountering this relatively unique barrier to implementing the approach across the board.

Firstly, I suspect that we are not aware we are relationship fundraising when we are looking after our high-level potential and current donors. The lack of a concrete definition aside, we probably feel it’s only logical to look after these people as VIPs given the size of their commitment or potential commitment. We imagine they are accustomed to a certain level of service; we’ll ask them about their needs up front in a gift agreement and be at pains to supply it. We know we’ll likely never provide ‘too much’ stewardship for these people – the sky is the limit, and our time and effort is justified. In other words, we are providing a 5-star service proportional to their 5-star value and not a penny of any donor’s gift is spent on it – the university pays for it gladly given the excellent ROI.

So, when a smaller donor comes along, some fundraisers don’t know where to start. ‘Oh they’ve given a £5 gift? I guess they can have a generic thank-you letter.’ If the level of care is determined in proportion to the size of the gift, not any underlying ethics, then relationship fundraising does not happen at the lower levels.

Secondly, we constantly reinforce how big donors are more important, critical in fact, to what we do. We draw up plans for multi-million-pound campaigns and we conduct feasibility studies (read: qualitative research with HNWIs only) to execute them. While the campaign is in motion, all that matters seems to be reaching that target, a target that incidentally none of our smaller donors are interested in. With that target in mind, a £5/month donor could be a drop in the ocean. I suspect some institutions might think they can afford to lose a few, especially if their research suggests these donors don’t have a large amount of wealth.

Thirdly, I think we suffer more than we admit from a lack of expertise and education in mass fundraising theory. We don’t have the emotive founding myths of many charities; most of our departments were established because our then VCs needed income diversification. This means that when we started modern HE fundraising we did so with with major gifts rather than grass roots support, and by the time regular giving was added, it was a ‘nice to have’. Our current development directors are therefore more likely to be from a major gift fundraising background and this may mean they are less confident becoming involved with regular giving programmes to the degree that would be required to lead cultural change in this area (if indeed, they felt this was important) – or they may outsource it to an agency who has these skills. If the regular giving manager is also from a marketing background and has not studied the nuances of selling the donor experience rather than a product, this would further compound the problem.

I completely appreciate this is not true for all institutions and I mean no disrespect to regular giving managers and development directors who care deeply about the alumni and donor experience, have done the research and who are making great things happen for all donors. However, the barriers are very real for other HE fundraisers and need to be discussed and addressed for change to occur.

Let me know you thoughts.

Unrequited Love: A study on the early UK university non-alumni donor experience

Three months ago, I started a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise in order to investigate the standard of donor care across fifteen higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK. I did this not to expose individual institutions to criticism, but to make observations about the experience that we are offering non-alumni donors as an industry. Having read Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising with great interest, I was curious to see if HEIs adhered to the principles outlined in this seminal publication, particularly within the context of a fundraising landscape undergoing major changes in response to highly critical stories in the media that followed the death of Olive Cooke in May 2015. I was hoping (with a bit of luck) to find some outstanding examples to showcase.


Continue reading

A response to “Are we missing too many alumni with web surveys? (Part 2)”

I was interested to read today a guest blog on the Cool Data site by Peter B. Wylie and John Sammis. It is called “Are we missing too many alumni with web surveys?” and is part 2 in a series (part 1 was published in 2012).

In summary, they looked at a North American university’s recent survey data (and presumably the institution’s full constituent data) and compared respondents, non-respondents and email-uncontactable alumni with regard to age, event attendance and giving. They were looking to identify and demonstrate demographic or behavioural differences in the survey respondents as compared with those who were unable to be invited to complete the survey (no email address) or those who chose not to.

Continue reading

Relationship fundraising for Higher Education today

A relative latecomer to this industry staple, over the last couple of weeks I ‘took Ken Burnett to bed every night’ (as my partner teased) and read his oft-quoted book. Many of you will know it well – it’s called Relationship Fundraising: A donor-based approach to the business of raising money.

Given the sound advice contained within, the amount of time passed since this book was published (1992!) and its popularity in the industry, you might assume that we’re all ‘relationship fundraising’ by now. I’ve certainly heard many a quote from this book (or from the man himself) at team meetings, conferences and industry events.

Not so! Within the well-thumbed pages of my copy of Relationship Fundraising, Ken had described many of my 2017 frustrations and concerns so accurately, I can only imagine how bittersweet it must be for him that this book is finding a new audience 25 years later. The truth is (references to fax machines and ‘working women’ aside) Ken’s book is still as relevant and revolutionary as ever.

Continue reading

Segmentation and journey planning for university advancement – a model (part 2)


Having outlined the concept of the model in my previous post, I’d like to offer my thoughts on how you could make this work for your team – big or small.

I’ll cover determining the journeys and involving your team in this process. I’ll also look at maintaining the model,what you can put in place to make this easier and also what to do with ‘super contributor alumni’ who support multiple causes in various ways.

Finally, I’ll add an important warning.

Continue reading

Segmentation and journey planning for university advancement – a model (part 1)


I’d like to propose for discussion a simple model for segmentation that would allow a certain degree of proactive journey planning. This has been tough to crack, and something that still needs refining – but putting this concept together has allowed me to start having conversations with colleagues about how the brave new world might look and feel. Until now, we’ve only been speaking about how ‘segmentation and journey planning’ is the solution to a lot of our communications, workload planning and supporter experience problems.

I believe that it is a solution, and I also think it can be more. I think it’s the beginning of a shift in mindset and culture, treating alumni as individuals capable of both growing and losing interest, and ultimately in need of communications that mean something to them.

Continue reading

Thinking about fundraising as a risky business


Increasing scrutiny from the media and regulators about the fundraising activities of charities, the sources of their funds and even the pay-packets of their senior staff has made charities and fundraising organisations more and more conscious of the cost of poor reputation and breaching public trust.

The fallout of summer 2015 is still being felt across the HE fundraising sector in the UK, with most institutions reviewing their programmes and if needed, taking measures to ensure their full and demonstrable compliance with regulations and ethical practices. Before that, there was the Woolf Inquiry in 2011, with many universities hurrying to put in place standard procedures for the solicitation and acceptance of philanthropic gifts.

When public confidence falls in charities, so does public willingness to donate, and the good work that many charities do in our communities becomes harder. This is the reason many organisations are opting to fix what’s broken as quickly as possible. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is already taking this a step further by attempting to equip charities with a “narrative” to help tell the positive and meaningful story of what they do. For the benefit everyone in the UK, particularly the vulnerable who rely on charity supported programmes, it’s important that our industry is well respected and held to high standards.

Continue reading

How to win at surveying your alumni


There are probably two things we can safely conclude from the pervasiveness of customer satisfaction surveys: one, they must be very useful to the organisations that commission them, and two: it’s getting harder to make a survey stand out.

At some point nearly every Higher Education institution will wind up wondering how to plan an alumni survey (or how to improve their results), so I thought I would collate a few tips from personal experience. For my sins, I have now been involved in two full scale quantitative alumni survey projects, co-ordinated a qualitative donor satisfaction survey and have designed and delivered countless satisfaction and engagement surveys to similar audiences. And this is what I’ve learned…

Continue reading