Get paid to ask for money

Educational fundraising is a young profession that needs to be better defined to attract candidates, says Shirley Pearce

October 4, 2012

How many of the brightest graduates leaving UK universities and seeking satisfying, socially engaged careers have thought about educational fundraising as a profession?

How many vice-chancellors, starting the new academic year distracted by the uncertainties of the new funding regime and unpredictable admissions figures, have grasped the potential of philanthropy as a powerful weapon in the battle to advance their university?

What would be the next steps for those interested to know more?

It has recently been my privilege to chair a review of philanthropy in UK higher education, examining the past 10 years of progress.

The review panel explored the reasons why people give money to higher education; what governments can do to help - or hinder; the impact that philanthropy has on our campuses; and what universities can change to increase the momentum.

It has been an eye-opening process. I had not appreciated the scale of improvement in fundraising and alumni relations that has occurred over the past decade, kick-started by the Thomas Report in 2004, which said that fundraising would work if it was tackled properly.

Between 2006-07 and 2010-11, the number of UK donors rose 54 per cent, and the value of gifts to higher education in financial terms increased 35 per cent from £513 million to £693 million. The opportunity for continued growth is calling loudly to us. We still have only 1.2 per cent of our alumni giving to universities, compared with 10 per cent of alumni giving to public universities in the US.

Yet 57 per cent of the UK population donate to charity, so UK citizens are not ungenerous. We just haven’t done a good enough collective job in conveying the message that universities are charities: they transform lives and tackle society’s most perplexing questions.

If the sector is able to unlock some of that potential and continue the rise seen in the past five years, we predict that an annual philanthropic income to UK higher education of £2 billion is possible within 10 years. The review shows that this target is realistic, but it will not be achieved without further effort.

Mostly it is clear what we need to do: we just need to get more people doing it well. But there is one area where it is not obvious what we should do. It relates to the workforce and training for development staff.

At present in the UK we do not have enough people experienced in fundraising in higher education to fill all the posts that have been created as universities have invested in this activity. Consequently, there are few applicants for each post and people move through the fundraising ranks too quickly.

We have some superb - and now home-grown - development directors, but problems have arisen when some people have been promoted too quickly.

If we want to attract the best people we must be clear about the professional qualifications and career pathways.

I hope that a decade from now, higher education fundraising will be one of the top career options on the minds of our graduating students. But do they even know that this exciting work exists at the moment?

We need clarity on whether fundraising needs a professional structure akin to that of the healthcare professions, with defined steps and stages, or to that of a discipline such as marketing, with membership controlled by a chartered body.

Why is it that with all the knowledge that we have in universities about education and professional development, and the wide range of professional programmes on offer, we have no agreed template of what an education and career in fundraising might look like?

Between us, we must answer questions such as: What is the knowledge base that fundraising staff need? What are the skills required to gain credibility with donors and academic staff? How do we teach and assess these skills, and accredit the learning?

Of all the report’s 14 recommendations, for me, getting this right is the most exciting challenge.

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