Academic support increases alumni giving

December 7, 2007

"Academic champions" are the key to successful university fundraising, delegates at The Times Higher 's first major management conference heard this week, writes Melanie Newman. Liesl Elder, director of development at Durham University, said: "If academics are not involved, you are doomed to failure."

Donors often made their final decision after talking to researchers, not fundraising professionals, she said. "When I fade into the background I know the gift is close."

In a list of tips for successful fundraising, Ms Elder warned vice- chancellors not to take a back seat. "If I'm the CEO of a (donor) company, and the CEO of the (recipient) organisation doesn't think I'm worth spending time on, that doesn't make a good impression."

Other obstacles to fundraising include lack of preparation and poorly conceived gift opportunities, she told delegates at the conference, Surviving in an Increasingly Competitive HE Marketplace .

"If it's a peripheral project, it won't resonate," Ms Elder said. "If it's mission critical, the case will be much more compelling."

Universities must also be prepared to view large donors as partners in the institutions.

The Government is encouraging universities to chase alumni endowments as a way of becoming more independent of public funding. The US is far ahead of the UK, Ms Elder said. She highlighted the University of Virginia, number 110 in The Times Higher -QS World University Rankings for 2007 (next to Durham at 109), which raised $24 million (£12 million) in endowments last year.

"This is daunting," Ms Elder admitted, but said the strategies employed by US universities could work equally well in the UK.

"The conventional wisdom that the British are not philanthropic is not true," she said.


  • Build a culture of philanthropy in students, and teach them that their fees cover only a percentage of the cost of their education
  • Don't wait for students to grow old before approaching them. Durham University's percentage returns from younger students were higher than among older ones
  • Invest in a good database, as you don't want two people talking to the same donor
  • Build your strategy around major recipients, as 90 per cent of cash comes from 10 per cent of donors
  • An annual fund helps build a culture of giving; while it will not earn huge amounts, major donors will emerge from annual donors
  • Give some thought to legacies - the best future donors are likely to be your current ones, so make sure you thank them.

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