Don’t ‘pull back’ on fundraising, ANZ universities urged

Universities ‘optimistic’ about pandemic philanthropy, as deeper pockets compensate for decline in donor numbers

October 26, 2020
a charity jar
Source: iStock

Australasian universities have been told not to let pandemic gloom swamp their fundraising efforts, as a new report shows that philanthropic support rebounded in the lead-up to Covid.

Stakeholder relations veteran Heather Hamilton said that US university fundraising yields had remained “fairly stable” during the global financial crisis late last decade, and Australian advancement offices were optimistic that the coronavirus would have a similarly low-key impact.

“At the end of the day, those who are donating are still financially sound,” said Ms Hamilton, Asia-Pacific executive director with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case).

The council’s latest Australia and New Zealand survey shows that fundraising efforts across 33 universities netted A$783 million (£428 million) in new support last year. Philanthropic aid for a core group of 30 universities, which were able to provide three full years of data, rose 15 per cent in 2019 following a decline and increase in the preceding years.

Ms Hamilton said that year-to-year fluctuations were “common”, often because exceptionally large donations one year were not matched the next. She said that the sheer volume of fundraising efforts by many non-profit organisations, including schools, also risked driving down the success rate – particularly among alumni. “They sometimes get fatigued at being asked,” she said.

The report tallies 118 confirmed pledges of A$1 million or more in 2019, up from 81 the previous year, while cash income rose 11 per cent – even though the number of donors fell 9 per cent.

“This mirrors national trends,” the report says, citing research findings that the proportion of Australian taxpayers making financial donations to non-profit organisations has been falling since 2010. “It may also reflect changes in fundraising behaviour by the universities, with greater emphasis being placed on seeking a relatively small number of major gifts, which drive up average gift sizes at the expense of total donor numbers.”

The trend was illustrated over the weekend by Perth’s annual Telethon charity event, which raised money for medical research. The record A$43 million haul came mainly from 14 large contributions tendered by donors including the state and federal governments, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto.

The report says that the sector had appeared on track to reap A$1 billion in a single year from philanthropy. Next year’s survey, to be conducted in the first half of 2021, would yield a “clearer sense” of how much the pandemic-induced economic downturn had “set back that goal”.

Case president Sue Cunningham urged universities not to “pull back” on their investment in fundraising despite the “tough” fiscal environment. “Advancement work, to be successful, requires consistency,” she notes in a foreword to the report. “Relationship building and sustaining cannot be put on hold without damaging these important relationships. Those of us who have been in the profession for our entire careers know this.”

The report reviews the fundraising efforts of 27 universities in Australia and six in New Zealand. Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) institutions monopolised the proceeds, claiming 61 per cent of all new funds and attracting A$60 million each compared with A$7 million at other universities.

Go8 universities typically employed twice as many fundraising staff as their counterparts in the UK’s Russell Group and secured more than twice as much in new funds from a roughly equivalent numbers of donors.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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