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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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