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7th July 2021 | Education

Guest post: Why the modern university sector needs to make fundraising a priority

Colin McCallum, Strategic Partner at Cairney & Company, explores the value of fundraising to the modern university sector

Fundraising really only works for research-intensive, prestigious universities with global brands… right?

The data from the annual CASE Ross Survey, might suggest that there is something in this. About half of all the money given to universities in the UK, year on year, has been raised by only two institutions. Guess which ones? Today, a handful of other large universities, including those in the Russell Group of leading research establishments, have begun to catch up on the elites and now raise very large sums indeed from large numbers of supporters. These institutions have been investing in building these programmes for decades now, and have started to benefit.

However, more than half of all the universities in the UK raise modest, if any, philanthropic support. Why? Well very few see it as a strategic priority and very few invest in the effort required.

So, if I am the Vice Chancellor of a large and complex modern university, why should I bother?

It is evident that fundraising has not been viewed as a cultural characteristic of many UK educational establishments. The experience needed may not be the most significant issues focused on in the recruitment of institutional leaders and there may be a view among many leaders that fundraising is really only for the big players. Success breeds success after all.

Yet in the modern world we recognise that success comes in many shapes and sizes. We also know that the impact of philanthropy is about so much more than money. Even relatively small amounts of donated income can have a huge impact in a university with a limited income portfolio and a modest history of philanthropy.

To start, however, we need to understand a few facts and bust some myths:

  • Fundraising works for everyone – any institution, large or small can get this right.
  • Success for one may look very different to success for another.
  • Giving even a million pound donation to an elite institution may have limited impact, while giving £1 million to an institution with a more recent or no tradition in this world, can make an enormous and lasting impact.
  • All universities need more income – now more than ever – and many rely to a significant extent on one or two sources of income. This limits flexibility and increases risk. We have seen recently the impact what a huge reduction in international student fee income has had. The UK government’s review of the funding of arts programmes is a further threat to the income of many.
  • Philanthropy will not provide a panacea, but done well it supports strategic development and provides flexibility.
  • The activities that underpin success in fundraising also support the wider ambitions and needs of a university – profile-raising, student recruitment, prestige, research collaboration.
  • The largest stakeholder group of any university is its alumni community. Typically, hundreds of thousands of individuals most of whom had a positive experience, will value the role of higher education in their lives and for the community. Investing in engagement with this community and asking for their help simply makes sense.
  • Building a fundraising programme tends to bring discipline and focus to a university’s external engagement activities and programmes. It forces some key decisions and work on areas such as – defining the institution’s USP, identifying core groups of people to build relationships with and begin discussions about the future, the identification of each institution’s strengths and potential for growth and development, the nature of the university’s role in the community and for the benefit of society, the approach required to manage external engagement (the CRM systems needed). Crucially, it demands that an institution identifies and tests its core case for support, its key audiences and its needs. Fundraising helps to create some very SMART objectives.

Don’t get me wrong a small number of modern universities have invested in this area in recent years and are raising money that makes a difference to the lives of their students as well as makes a difference to the university. There are a growing number of examples of success in a broad swath of institutions across the UK. There are modern universities that have begun to secure six and seven figure donations to support strategic priorities and special initiatives. Some have developed lasting partnerships with supporters as a result. For others, it seems too hard, too expensive, and simply takes too long, or perhaps it makes some leaders feel uncomfortable.

It takes time to build a fundraising programme, and for some this creates a barrier. Investment is needed, but then any business plan that a leader will look at will do just the same. Invest in the right stuff for, say, three years and then returns should begin to be evident. Fundraising and alumni engagement are no different. Get on with it Vice Chancellors everywhere, you are missing a trick!

About the author

Colin McCallum is a Strategic Partner at Cairney & Company, a global company of innovative and creative fundraisers, strategists, communicators, researchers, trainers and coaches, based in the UK, USA, Canada and Hong Kong.


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The UK is recognised as being a global leader in research and innovation. In March 2020, the Chancellor committed to a record increase in public investment in R&D of £22bn per year by 2024/25, reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2027 in the Research and Development Roadmap. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of higher education institutions has never been more crucial in building back better. 

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Article written by
Danielle Chapman

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