University fundraising’s moment of truth?

Here on the Holly Palmer Consulting blog we’ve written extensively about the importance of bringing relationship fundraising into higher education, we’ve examined why it struggles to take root and what it can achieve where it does. We’ve also studied the quality of donor care at a number of UK universities, and we’ve taken a critical look at the default model of both alumni relations and fundraising campaigns in UK higher education. In our view there are huge opportunities open to the sector, but our sense is that improvements to how universities seek to understand, support and communicate with their audiences are in some cases urgently required. Today’s front-page splash in the Daily Mail could provide the catalyst for that change – it all depends on the industry, the alumni, and the public’s response over the next week.

It was in May 2015 that a Daily Mail front page exposed the practices of some major UK charities: “Hounded to death by cold callers” ran a piece that focused on the death of Olive Cooke, the UK’s longest-serving poppy seller, and a deluge of similarly damning news reports followed (we’ve collated as many of them as we could find – you’ll see that the final piece ran almost a year to the day after the Mail’s story). We won’t revisit the context of Olive Cooke’s death, but you can read about the Fundraising Standard Board’s report in Third Sector. Nevertheless, whilst it is correct to say that the Mail’s original headline was misleading, the broader fundraising practices that were covered extensively in its wake could not be easily dismissed.

The consequences of that coverage are well known: Etherington, FReg, FPS, opt-in marketing, and a gradual recovery in public trust towards the charity sector. It was a painful time for fundraising in the UK, but the sector responded in due course with humility, self-reflection, and a genuine commitment to change (and Ken Burnett deservedly got to say “I told you so!”). There’s still much to be done, but charity leaders publicly accepted that they’d let the public down and would do better – even before the ICO issued multiple fines for some of the behaviour exposed in newspaper coverage.

Earlier this year, it was reported that philanthropic giving at UK universities had surpassed £1bn for the first time. Fresh research shows universities’ economic contribution is nearly £87 billion, but stories and debates about VC pay, diversity and left-wing bias are also circulating. These stories, along with opinions about whether universities should fundraise at all, are being conflated and used by some with vested interests to create a narrative where universities are wealthy and a bit shady. Combine this with the perception of some that universities are becoming arrogant and out of touch and you have the perfect recipe for a public backlash against university fundraising practices. This is probably what the Daily Mail has spotted, and they are taking full advantage of it.

There are several inaccuracies and embellishments in the Daily Mail article and universities may well be conducting wealth-screening lawfully. Pointing this out is important, and CASE and the ICO have given measured statements. But in our view, the opinions of alumni about what is reasonable should be equally (if not more) important right now. Universities that fundraise are committed to serve their alumni and to build long-term relationships based on trust. The happier and more connected alumni feel, the more successful programmes are, but this may require universities to hold themselves to higher standards than the minimum legal requirement. If a consumer finds that the small print (that they probably didn’t read) allowed their service provider to do something they don’t agree with, the fact that it was in the small print when they signed doesn’t automatically make them happy about it. Universities will no-doubt be concerned with what effect today’s story might have on how our alumni perceive them regardless of any fines or warnings that may or may not come down the line.

We as fundraisers accept that there are solid arguments for why wealth-screening should take place, such as making fundraising more efficient and ensuring communications with alumni and supporters more relevant and appropriate. On the other hand, there are alternatives available to universities to gather similar information, such as alumni surveys and making the most of regular two-way contact. But now is a good time to understand how alumni feel about the arguments for wealth-screening and whether they hold water. This is surely the most important factor in determining how a university should respond at this critical moment.

Some universities might be planning to send statements to their alumni as we write. Many may have conducted focus groups and surveys with alumni to gauge their opinions on wealth-screening to ensure their response (and their long-term data processing strategy) hits the right note. Will this be the critical moment for universities that it was for charities? Will we see a greater emphasis on improving the alumni and supporter experience through two-way dialogue with alumni in future? Watch this space.