Fewer alumni are giving to their universities

May 9, 2017 News, News & Opinion, Opinion

Why wasn’t that the opening line from the recent Ross-CASE Study? Last year 3% fewer alumni gave back to their universities. The most recent Ross-CASE Survey of Charitable Giving to Universities also showed that the total amount of fundraising income has gone up by 23% between 2015 and 2016 – and it was the fact that the funds raised by UK universities in a year exceeded £1bn for the first time that took the headlines. This is a great achievement for giving to higher education, especially considering how much it has grown, but we must ask whether continuing to aim for more of those large gifts is a sustainable way of growing fundraising income?

At a time when the GDPR legislation is threatening the techniques employed by many universities to screen and approach supporters, shouldn’t the sector be encouraging more alumni to give? Nurturing those small relationships over time – regardless of current wealth – can pay back in the long term just as well as, and perhaps better than, current approaches.

Ross-CASE Global Vice President Tricia King said: “Philanthropic giving is now at the heart of UK university culture.” But can that be true when the number of graduates giving back to their universities is falling? After all, they sit more squarely at the heart of that culture than anyone.

Universities are also spending more to raise more. In 2015-16 the cost of fundraising was up 16% on the previous year. While again it is encouraging to see a commitment to fundraising, I would question why that spend isn’t being translated in to more alumni donors. Despite spend on alumni relations increasing year on year by 10%, the number of those who gave fell by around 5,000. The figure also dropped below the mark set the previous year. Universities need to find more ways to engage with more alumni. Data can help that journey.

However, universities must first improve the way they use data. Institutions are to be held more accountable for their data protection. Consent must have been ‘freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous’. According to the ICO, “…consent will not usually be appropriate if there is a clear imbalance of power between you and the individual”. If universities are obtaining consent at the point of student enrolment, when students depend on their services, is that consent ‘freely given’? The requirement that fundraising be a ‘legitimate interest’ could also be a tough call, and will require the development of a persuasive argument.

But if these hurdles are overcome and data is managed properly, such information can help you to find more graduates. Graduates who may only give small amounts, but who could blossom into valuable lifetime engagements. University legacy income has grown to over £100m and data can help identify who the next legacy pledgers might be – but only if those alumni are already engaged and being encouraged to think about how they can give back to their university. Observing and learning from what other charities do to take supporters on this journey would be a huge benefit to Higher Education fundraising. In addition, using data to assign a value to those actions that don’t make it into the Ross-CASE studies (such as non-financial communications with alumni; volunteer hours logged…) will start to move alumni engagement up the agenda.

Because if those big gifts stop coming, the alumni you’ve forgotten about won’t be as ready to step up as you might have hoped.

Andrew Sargent is a Consultant Analyst at Wood for Trees