What can charities learn from universities? – 1/3

May 25, 2016 News & Opinion

Fundraising for universities in the UK can be a tough business – we don’t have the same culture of giving as in some other countries. Wood for Trees recently completed a piece of work for one of the world’s top-100 universities. We looked at the data behind how they fundraise – both with alumni and non-alumni. Among our findings, we learned that they were particularly strong at relationship-building. This is the first of three blog articles that discuss what charities and universities can learn from each other. Here we focus on what charities could learn from universities. In part two, we’ll turn the tables and look at the elements of charity fundraising that could be useful to universities.

As we’ve said, universities in the UK face a tough challenge finding donors. In addition to the lack of a giving culture, the likelihood of someone giving to their university is dictated by their life stage, just as is the chance of them giving to any other charitable cause. Crucially, younger alumni with less disposable income make up the largest part of the database.

Despite these challenges universities can make fundraising work. The latest Ross-Case survey, released this week, showed that cash donations in higher education establishments increased 14% from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

Alumni count

We found that one of the reasons for this improvement was how good universities are at building and nurturing relationships with their alumni, young and old. They get mailed, emailed and phoned. They get regular updates and newsletters. And when they do give they are thank-a-thon’d. The university is also encouraging new forms of giving, such as crowdfunding, as they adapt to the changing attitudes of students towards organisations. There is a robust volunteering programme and many students and alumni do the fundraising and thanking themselves. The aim is to give their potential donor base as many ways to interact with the university as possible.

The goal is that this engagement will lead to a large gift in the future. In 2014, over 40% of charitable gifts over a million pounds were made to universities. And other universities are making this journey work for them already: McMaster University in Canada is one example. They have an annual fundraising target of $21m. But their top 20 donors started small, giving less than $1,000 (£640) – and a decade elapsed between their first gift and their major gift. The university demonstrates that they value their alumni when they have less money, so they are more likely to give when they do.

Nurture for the future

Fundraising from alumni is driven as much by affinity as it is by capacity to give. And both of those things will change over time. Being a graduate is the start of affinity, and maintaining it makes building the right relationships – when capacity is right – a little bit easier.

Essentially, universities nurture.

Our client university wants their graduates to volunteer, to attend events and to engage with them. They are giving themselves a bigger pool of prospects for their programmes by nurturing as many of their alumni as possible. Charities could learn a lot from this approach – particularly at a time when repeatedly targeting the same donor base in the same ways is under scrutiny. Engaging different types of supporter in different ways and not expecting that financial gift until they have the capacity to do so could have huge long-term benefits for individual giving programmes and major donor fundraising.

Look out for the next post in our universities series, considering what universities can learn from charities – so that when their alumni reach the point of having the capacity to give, they can be as effective as possible.


Andrew Sargent, Consultant Analyst, Wood for Trees