Calling the old boys' network

February 27, 2004

When it comes to raising cash from alumni, could the UK learn from the US? Tony Tysome and Walter Ellis investigate.

Universities in the UK are quickly realising that they are going to have to ask graduates to contribute even more than top-up fees to the cost of higher education if institutions are to achieve the level of funding they say they need for the future.

They will have to learn some lessons from the US and find more ways to build lasting relationships with alumni - relationships that might encourage them to "put something back" into the institution that hopefully helped launch their careers and provided them with an enjoyable and character-building experience.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, chairs a government-appointed higher education endowment task force set up to explore how to build an "asking culture" in universities, as well as finding ways to make giving easier and more productive - such as providing more tax relief on donations.

He believes that the UK will have to focus even more than the US on cultivating a tradition of giving among alumni because the stockmarket conditions that allowed US universities to build large endowment funds no longer exist. But whatever strategy UK institutions adopt, they will need to recognise that it will require some upfront investment that may not see significant returns for ten or even 20 years.

He said: "One of the most important differences in the UK is that often we do not ask our alumni for money. But if you are going to do it, you have to do it properly. You have to have the brass neck to ask, but you also have to know how to ask.

"There should be a recognition that when alumni give money they expect to see something in return - be it their name on a building or just an expression of gratitude from the institution."

The right approach also means establishing a long-term two-way relationship with alumni. Most who give money now are over the age of 50, but universities need to start building a relationship before that, Thomas says. "You have to make them feel part of the university and part of its future."

Many UK universities, although relatively new to this game, are taking this approach.

One of the objectives of the merger between Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology is to boost alumni relations and donations. Will Eades, Manchester's director of development, says the key challenge for institutions is to determine what their priorities are and which ones they want to fund via alumni.

He said: "The projects have to be the sort of things that are marketable to major donors. They must be important to the university but at the same time produce outcomes that donors can see and understand."

Manchester already offers about 50 services to its alumni in an effort to make them feel included and valued. These include such things as an alumni business networking scheme that helps them develop their careers through contacts, and use of library, entertainment, catering and conference facilities at a discount rate.

Birmingham University holds alumni networking events built around areas of work, such as the legal profession. Law alumni have opened up their chambers or law firm to stage such events, which often include a speaker from the university's law department.

Nick Blinko, deputy director of development and alumni relations at Birmingham, says that these days it is necessary to be flexible about events - for instance, holding them at lunchtimes or around the country to make it easier for alumni to attend.

Birmingham has also appointed a stewardship officer to organise events for donors and to ensure that they are properly thanked and that their gift is carefully administered.

This paid off with Paul Ramsay, who graduated from the university in the 1980s and went on to establish a computer company in the US. He initially pledged $1,000 (£535,000), but after numerous telephone conversations with Blinko he eventually agreed to donate £1 million.

Blinko said: "We had been talking about the university's priorities and also about what he was interested in. The idea of a bursaries and research fund was close to his heart. In the end, it was good stewardship that led him to give more. People need to be looked after and treated as individuals."

Oxford University, an old hand at the alumni networking game, raises between £20 million and £30 million a year from alumni.

Some of the oldest traditions at Oxford help sustain alumni relations. The colleges, for instance, hold annual alumni dinners called "gaudies" that date back to Edwardian times.

But, according to Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, the university is also very forward-looking in its approach. Many colleges have organised telephone campaigns in which students contact alumni to raise money for specific projects.

Colleges are looking even further into the future, by considering "legacy campaigns" in which alumni are encouraged to include their alma mater in their will.

But Richard Taylor, marketing director for Leicester University, cautioned:

"It's really important that we are not just seen to be tapping alumni for money. They have to feel that the university is relevant to them and the outside world and that it is a worthwhile relationship they are buying into."

One cause for optimism is the outcome of a pilot campaign and survey of alumni run by Leicester, which found that even young graduates appear to have embraced the idea that they should put something back into higher education.

Taylor said: "They were not philosophically opposed to the idea of being asked to give. That is a good sign for the future."

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