What can universities learn from charities? – 2/3

June 16, 2016 News & Opinion

In a previous post we considered how charities could learn a lesson in engagement from universities. Higher education establishments do not expect a financial gift until their alumni have the capacity to do so, but in the meantime they work hard to maintain a relationship with them. Charities could boost their long-term fundraising by taking a similar approach.

But universities could do more – and they could start with matching the different strategies of charities. Large donations dominate university fundraising and their individual giving programmes tend to be small. Over 90% of income to a recent Oxford University campaign came from less than 2% of the donors. Such donations come from a small number of supporters (from what is a small audience to start with, relative to charities). But charities are moving in to this space. Reports of increased philanthropic giving are widespread and charities are putting in more effort to get their share. Universities should diversify too.

The right message to the right people

Alumni giving in the UK may be relatively small but there are signs of growth and potential for it to be far bigger. Framing the message and segmenting audiences can help universities achieve this growth. For some supporters, the desire to donate will be driven by the research that the university does to saves lives. Others wish to give back to the institution that helped them get on in life. Some will wish to support their role and influence in local communities, working with schools and colleges to help raise aspirations. Universities can be different things to different people; they can use data to understand those audiences and push the right story in the best direction. Alumni have already told them what they like to engage with – in the emails they read and the clubs they belonged to. It’s now a matter of finding this insight in the data.

It doesn’t have to be just about alumni either. Looking outside the alumni base into their local communities could be one place to start. Charities are good at leveraging local groups, and research suggests that the public are more receptive to calls for donations from ‘local’ charities than national ones.

Better understanding of supporter journeys

With a bigger audience, universities could also communicate more – at times when it is right to do so. Taking a more flexible approach and looking for the next best ask could have big benefits for universities. Charities are starting to do this more across a greater variety of channels. Trigger marketing and online communications for example help to expand understanding of the journeys that supporters go on, and when and how it affects their desire to engage.

There is still a big place for appeals for donations. In fact universities could do more of those too. But it shouldn’t just be about asking more. There are opportunities for better targeting of alumni, for example using affinity models as well as more traditional targeting models to make sure that the ask is right and made at the best time. Charities are now well versed in using propensity models. These make sure that they are not sending communications to supporters who are unlikely to respond. Universities should adopt similar approaches for their fundraising: every communication will become more relevant to the alumni they are addressing.

Of course, every university will be different. But having good data and processes in place is of paramount importance. It makes it quicker to adapt to changing demands and make the most of opportunities that present themselves.

In the third and concluding part of this series, we’ll look at the challenges facing both universities and charities in the current fundraising climate. Watch the Wood for Trees blog space…


Andrew Sargent, Consultant Analyst, Wood for Trees