Gifts that just stop giving? Donation fears when matched funding ends

Conference hears that scheme's imminent demise could arrest momentum. Hannah Fearn reports

February 17, 2011

Fundraising at UK universities may become marginalised as a government matched-funding scheme that has swelled development offices across the academy comes to an end this summer, a conference has heard.

The scheme was launched by the previous government to provide £200 million between 2008 and 2011 to match charitable donations to universities and colleges.

Under the deal, institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge receive £1 from the state for every £3 they raise, while those that are new to philanthropy receive a pound-for-pound matched gift, up to a certain threshold.

After the scheme's launch, universities invested in development staff to help bring in extra cash.

Speaking last week at a conference in London, Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, praised the coalition government for seeing the scheme through.

He described the programme as a "personal gift from Prime Minister Blair", claiming that the former Labour leader had fought the Treasury to get it approved.

Despite these origins, the coalition had met the scheme's commitments rather than treating it as "low hanging fruit" when it sought to make spending cuts, he added.

But other speakers at the conference, Enhancing Fundraising and Philanthropy in Higher Education, voiced fears for the future of fundraising once the scheme closed.

Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, said there was a "real risk" that the sector would suffer when the programme was wound up later this year.

"I do fear a risk of reduced momentum. I do fear a risk of some institutions thinking (fundraising) is an easy place to cut. There is still so much to be done that we can't afford as a sector to do that," she said.

Professor Thomas, who has himself donated a large sum to Bristol, said he believed "leadership and professionalism" were key to maintaining philanthropic income.

He described how he had rearranged the responsibilities of his senior management team to enable him to spend up to 60 days a year working on major donor development.

"Your fundraising campaign will be at its most successful if the head of your institution carves out time to lead that campaign," the vice-chancellor said.

Professionalising the operation would also ensure a good return: "I do not thank hyperbolically a member of staff who gets a gift - it's their job," he added.

However, he admitted that development could be threatened at some universities as it requires major long-term investment.

Many alumni would not donate for another 30 years, and it could take 12 years or more for legacy payments to come through, Professor Thomas noted.

Rory Brooks, co-founder of investment firm MML Capital Partners and a donor to the University of Manchester, said universities needed to "demythologise and de-stress" the business of asking for money.

"It's a bit like having sex for the first time: you know you want to do it, you hope it's going to be OK, but you're terrified about the outcome," he said.

"But if you're engaged with a prospective donor you're in a relationship and the actual 'ask' is just one small step in that process."

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