UK universities should have the courage to be British about fundraising

Gavin Maggs reflects on why philanthropy must mean more than money, and how institutions can find their voice when building long-term relationships with alumni

July 29, 2018
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“So, how much do you want?” These were the words that greeted me on my first trip to New York before I had even sat down in the office of a smirking local banker. I confess that I was surprised – which was, of course, the point – but I thought that I might as well give as good as I got, and asked him for $10,000 (£7,600).

When I started out in fundraising 20 years ago there was a cohort of development directors who had been imported from the US. Their expertise and network-building had been chiselled on the other side of the pond and evidenced through multibillion-dollar endowments for the likes of Yale or Harvard. They could, we were told, revolutionise philanthropy and regular giving in a UK university context. 

I was fortunate enough to learn a great deal from my first two (American) development directors. They had a distinct approach to philanthropy that got results, not least in professionalising operations when it came to developing relationships with “prospects” and in being ambitious about proposals. 

But they also taught me that there could be a unique “British way” – one that could be as effective in nurturing lasting relationships and generating returns that go beyond the bottom line.

The New York meeting contrasts starkly with those in the Far East, where face – mianzi in China, or metsu in Japan – is critical. I have become acutely aware of the importance of not putting a prospective donor in the awkward position of having to say “no”, performing an elegant dance around the agenda item at stake, two steps forward and one back.

The British temperament, the “British way” if you like, makes us pretty adaptable and effective when it comes to doing philanthropy in all corners of the world. We are, as a nation, polite; we like to queue and we tut (but not too loudly) when others don’t do it properly and, on the whole, we’re a little more reserved than most other nationalities. 

That means that it typically takes us longer to get to “the ask” than our North American cousins. But fundraising is very much both an art and a science. By shaping an offer to our alumni, which is underpinned by emotional nous and good data combined, I believe that we create a compelling offer of why investment in a UK university is a good thing. 

It means treating philanthropy as so much more than just money. Our alumni, wherever they are in the world, are our best brand ambassadors, our best recruitment agents, ideally placed to broker conversations with their human resources departments about student placements for our current undergraduates, or to begin the conversation about industry interaction, knowledge transfer partnerships or sponsorship of the students’ union. 

Their involvement and connection with our university at a formative stage in their lives means something: they want to stay connected, to see their alma mater succeed and to give back, both with their time and money. 

This is our experience of engaging with our alumni. At the University of Bath, we have just reached our £66 million target for our “Look Further” fundraising campaign as part of our 50th anniversary. 

That figure helped sharpen focus. The money raised will, of course, help our students including through investment in new scholarships and PhD opportunities, and also our research community, through pump-priming innovative projects that need a boost, to major investments such as our almost completely donor-funded Milner Centre for Evolution that will open its doors later this year. But my reflection on what matters is that it is those new relationships that we have built that will generate returns far beyond headline figures, whether it is Bath’s sums or the £1 billion raised by the sector last year. 

And that should be the “British approach” to philanthropy. Being alive to opportunities and being adept at navigating different customs and etiquettes around the world. But it is also about seeing the whole rather than just the chequebook, and taking the time to do it properly. It’s being prepared to queue, if you like, knowing that it will be worth it in the end. 

Gavin Maggs is director of development and alumni relations at the University of Bath. 

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