The art of asking

A new generation of dynamic fundraisers is overcoming traditional British reticence about seeking donations - with increasing effect. Esther Oxford meets the persuaders

February 14, 2008

To some vice-chancellors, fundraising for their universities is regarded as a vulgar and ignoble job best left to the Americans. "I feel uncomfortable about aggressively asking for money," confides one vice-chancellor. "I don't think it fits in well with the UK university system."

By contrast, some of his peers leap at the chance, seeing fundraising as a sure-fire way to improve the fortunes of their institution.

When Duncan Rice was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen in 1996, he decided that £150 million was the amount needed to get the university where he wanted it to be. Nine years on, he has raised £92.2 million of the £150 million target, and he has until 2010 to reach his goal.

The issue of how best to raise money has been a fairly divisive one in British universities until recently. Although a few vice-chancellors have, like Rice, raised serious amounts of money through philanthropic donations, other universities put in less effort and raise relatively tiny amounts from alumni and benefactors.

Of course, compared with US institutions, UK universities only ever raise modest sums. The oft-quoted value of Harvard University's endowment, in the region of $35 billion (£17.6 billion), is due in no small part to the generous donations of alumni and other benefactors. It is commonplace for America's Ivy League institutions and prestigious state universities to receive single donations of several million dollars. In the past three years, Harvard has raked in $1.7 billion from alumni and friends. In 2006, cash gifts alone (as differentiated from bequests of property and the like) totalled $596 million. Compare that with the University of Bristol's annual income through fundraising, £600,000 last year, and the difference in scale is all too evident.

But change is afoot in the UK as universities wake up to the possibilities of alumni giving - thanks, in no small part, to the hiring of professional fundraisers, many from the US.

Fundraisers are helping to re-educate and reskill universities and their staff, not least vice-chancellors, in the benefits of soliciting donations from alumni and private benefactors. Universities need more money than any government is prepared to part with, and fundraisers are showing them how to get their hands on it from private sources. Indeed, their impact can be seen already.

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case), £417 million in philanthropic gifts was raised by 81 British institutions between 2005 and 2006. A total of 100,000 alumni gave to universities.

With endowments totalling £6 billion and alumni-giving rates of 10 per cent, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge now rank with many American institutions. This compares with a typical alumni-giving rate of 1 per cent across the rest of Britain's higher education institutions.

But some universities, such as Aberdeen, are startlingly good at fundraising. Bristol's development team has recently closed its campaign to raise £100 million - ahead of time. Meanwhile the University of Cambridge is running a campaign to raise £1 billion over the next eight to ten years; the University of Oxford has similar plans, although it has yet to announce its new target.

But UK universities still face an uphill struggle. Statistics show that the British are quite miserly when it comes to charity. Twenty per cent of Britain's annual giving is collected by people shaking tins on the street, and the average gift is 50p, according to Increasing Voluntary Giving to Higher Education, a report by the Task Force on Voluntary Giving to Higher Education chaired by Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol. Sixteen per cent is collected in door-to-door campaigns where the average gift is £1, and 14 per cent is donated through raffle tickets. Britons give an average of £110 per person to charity a year, while Americans give $750 (£385).

These are obstacles, but they are ones that can be overcome by professional fundraisers.

Young Dawkins, the American-born head of fundraising at the University of Edinburgh, sets his sights high. He recently persuaded a former alumnus and his wife to part with £1 million. The University of Edinburgh Campaign has a target of £350 million; it has already collected £206 million, of which £57 million was raised in just 12 months.

"People use the excuse that Britain doesn't have a culture of giving," Dawkins says. "The reality is that British universities have not yet developed a culture of asking."

The practitioners of this "art of asking" are held in high esteem by their vice-chancellors in the US. They have titles such as "vice-president for development", they often work from exceedingly well-appointed offices and can rely on the full attention and support of the vice-chancellor's office. But fundraising has now become a serious business in the UK.

"There is a rising generation of vice-chancellors who understand the excitement and fun in fundraising," says Joanne Motion, vice-president for international operations at Case. "They understand the need to get good at it."

Mike Smithson, former director of fundraising at The Open University, believes vice-chancellors can make their biggest contributions once their fundraisers have done the groundwork.

"The trick is to raise the subject of money with the donor before the formal lunch," says Smithson, who has 20 years of experience in the field at institutions including the University of York, the London School of Economics and Oxford and Cambridge.

"I might call up the potential donor and say something along the lines of: 'The vice-chancellor would like to invite you to lunch ... in fact he would like to hear some of your ideas ... and he is looking to people like you to make donations.'

"Then I pre-negotiate the sum before the 'ask', and I deal with any negative questions or comments in advance. So by the time the lunch takes place, the conversational context has been negotiated."

A common mistake, he says, is telling alumni that the university needs money. "Needless to say, that goes down like a lead balloon. People need a positive vision to associate with when they are in the process of giving."

Mary Blair, an American who is director of development and alumni relations at the London School of Economics, agrees. "I remind my alumni of the attraction of being part of something bigger than ourselves," she says.

Tania Jane Rawlinson, director of campaigns and alumni relations at Bristol, another American, remembers her arrival at the university in 2003. "The development office was active but small and hugely under-resourced. There was a database of alumni, and that was more or less it. Fundraising was just not taken seriously."

Under Rawlinson's direction, that soon changed. "I instigated an American model that I'd already tried and tested at the University of Oxford. We ask each alumnus to make a gift each year, approaching them either by telephone or by letter.

"Many of my colleagues presume they don't have the budget to do that. But I work from the idea that we should approach people again and again. After all, our alumni are adult enough to say, 'No, go away,' if they wish us to," she says.

Rawlinson's school of charm seems distinctly American, and it appears to work. "I change lives," she says. "Universities improve and shape and lead people to better lives."

Dawkins agrees: "I've got the best job in Scotland. My job is to contribute clear, positive energy."

Part of the success of US institutions is identifying the rich and tapping them for donations.

"We've got a lot of very wealthy Russians here," says the LSE's Blair. "The problem is, I don't know who is rich and who is poor, and I am too old to go to the bar to find out. I have to do research and find out information from the internet. And I have to be careful to approach them in a manner that fits their nationality. Part of the skill lies in targeting nationalities differently. If you ask the Chinese to give you money, they look at you as if you are from Mars. So the trick is to invite them to give you money."

The concept of selling a university may be anathema to many academics, but fundraisers put a good deal of thought into working out the best sales pitch for their institution.

"British universities are not very good at articulating 'the sell'," Rawlinson says. "They need to focus their story on the wonderful impact that universities can and do have.

"For example, when I'm trying to persuade an alumnus or alumna to give us a donation, I'll ask which three charities he or she supports. She might say the Red Cross, Cancer Research and Barnardo's. So I'll tell her about the flood defence programme at Bristol that looks at the way governments could change their response to flood programmes. Or about the 100,000 children who have been saved from cot death as a result of research done by scientists at our university.

"What people don't realise is that when they give money to medical research, that research work is then contracted out to universities such as the University of Bristol. So by helping us directly, it cuts out the middleman."

The Open University relies on a different "sell", Smithson says. "Students study from home, so they barely have a sense of place or community, but we do find they are very loyal to us and to the principles we stand for.

"Our 'sell' is to do with educational equality, and how we create opportunities for students who might not otherwise have had a university education. We ask donors for money to fund an objective, to fund a form of social justice. That gives us a framework for fundraising."

Another tip from the fundraisers is to build a sense of loyalty while alumni are still students, thereby reducing the effort needed to track them down and rebuild relationships once they have left university.

"My son went to Cambridge in 1992," Smithson says. "At the matriculation dinner, the lead speaker said: 'We're so rich you can rest assured that we will never need to ask you for money.'

"That kind of extraordinary complacency is a huge turn-off. I prefer the American approach that reminds students: 'You are here because of the generosity of those who came before you. When you leave, we hope you will continue the tradition.'"

Motion agrees: "If you go to Princeton University, you will be shown around by a bright-eyed, enthusiastic student who is only too conscious of the debt he or she owes to predecessors. We need to make it clear to British students how their university experience has been enriched by their predecessors."

But it is also important not to be too presumptuous: "We try to be very respectful to our former students. They are giving us a gift. We try to make it a two-way street and give them gifts in return," Blair says.

"The skill lies in building relationships when the alumni are young. I am quite happy to tell freshly graduated alumni how grateful I am for a £25 donation. In later years, I'll help that very same donor appreciate the difference that £250 will make compared with £100. Big donors only become big donors after years of careful nurturing," Rawlinson says. "There is strong American evidence that donors who give $1 million will have already made 13 smaller gifts of less than $250."

But despite a bright-looking future, there are still problems for British fundraisers to overcome. For a start, say fundraisers, the British public - including former students - still tend to see universities as the Government's responsibility. Additionally, the tax incentive for giving to any charity is poor, and in Britain it is the charities that get the tax relief, not the individual donor.

Another major hurdle is the cost to a university of running a fundraising office that may take years to make a profit. "My office costs £1.2 million a year to run," Rawlinson says. "And it now brings in an income of £3.5million. But that took years!"

Perfecting a US-style fundraising machine will take time, but optimism is high among UK fundraisers.

"In the Seventies, American state universities were in contact with 4 per cent of their alumni," Rawlinson says. "We match that now at the University of Bristol by being in touch with 4.1 per cent of our alumni, up from zero in 2003. Three decades from now, we expect to be in contact with 15 per cent of our alumni, just as American universities are now. That kind of trajectory could happen in Britain if we concentrated on fundraising with the same energy and commitment."

Every spring, Case runs a five-day training course on fundraising with 150 places. According to Motion, "the course is so popular it is sold out three months in advance. We could run it twice over. But five years ago we would have struggled to fill 70 places."

If the demand for this kind of training and the willingness of universities to learn from the US are anything to go by, then before long UK institutions will have transformed their approach to fundraising.

As in the US, some universities will benefit more than others, and this will have implications for the future shape of UK higher education.

In the meantime, all UK universities, along with their staff and students, could benefit from the additional income that such fundraising brings.

And if they get the sales pitch right, universities should only enhance the feelings of goodwill and loyalty already felt by most graduates towards their alma mater.


Perhaps unusually for a working academic, Robert Fowler spends large chunks of his time fundraising. The professor of Greek and dean of arts is one of 100 academics actively engaged in fundraising at the University of Bristol.

"Academics talk with passion about the impact that the money will have on their projects and what the donation will achieve," says Tania Jane Rawlinson, Bristol's director of campaigns and alumni relations. "Donors give money to people - not to 'goals' or 'objectives'."

Fowler explains how he became involved in fundraising. "When I arrived at Bristol 11 years ago, I was keen to set up a research department that would focus on the links between the ancient and the modern world. I imagined a department where young PhD students would come to study and practise teaching and where ideas would flourish.

"Philanthropy seemed like the best way forward. I started approaching private individuals and charitable organisations in the UK and abroad. So far we've raised £482,000, and we still have pledges outstanding.

"It can be very frustrating. Quite often I'll see a lot of people and make a lot of calls, and I just don't get a result. Then I get a big donation, and it makes it all worthwhile.

"The first time an individual donor offered me £55,000, I was so taken aback I forgot to say anything. My colleague had to step in and offer his thanks.

"I'm slowly seeing a change in the culture in Britain. When I first started fundraising, I was consciously holding back from being too blunt about asking for money. I understood that the British were reticent, so I decided that the right thing to do was to invite potential donors on to an advisory board. I became so bashful about asking for money that I ended up with lots of people on the advisory board and no money.

"Now I think: who is kidding whom? You've been invited to a fundraising event - of course we are going to ask you for money.

"My hot tip to academic fundraisers is to be passionate when you are describing your vision. If you don't believe in your own project, who else is going to do so?"


- Don't fawn over wealthy people. Concentrate on persuading them to open up to you instead.

- Learn to size people up so you can work out who has money they want to give away and who does not.

- Believe in what you are selling. If you are not fully convinced of the merit of university education, potential donors will notice.

- Dine regularly with university deans and professors and go to lectures and performances on campus. It is part of your job to be able to talk fluently about the latest research projects being pioneered at your university.

- Take note of what excites your potential donor intellectually. Then go away and research their interests - and what your university is working on in a similar area.

- Avoid "selling" in the traditional sense. What you are offering is the "privilege of participating in a project that is going to change the world".

- Make sure there is romance in your conversation. Don't pitch your "sell" too early in the conversation. Try to use a little foreplay and don't make your 'sell' feel inevitable.

Times Higher Education will be running a conference on fundraising for universities on 29 May in central London. Further details will be announced in the next few weeks. Early booking is recommended. To reserve a place, phone 01252 781178 or e-mail

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