Skill shortages ‘holding Australian philanthropy back’

While fundraising is growing, it involves more than ‘building relationships over a cup of coffee’ 

March 24, 2019
Umbrella in the desert
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Rainmakers: ‘It’s about where we can create new value – not just incremental value’

A dearth of talent is hindering Australian universities from raising philanthropic funds to compensate for government cutbacks and uncertain international student flows, a sector leader has warned.

Marcus Ward, chief philanthropy officer at Monash University, said that university advancement offices were “inhibited by the size of the profession” despite netting about A$1 million (£540,000) for every staff member employed.

He said that as a rule of thumb, universities earned a dollar for every 12 cents they spent on fundraising and alumni outreach. “But I’ve seen it go wrong, where they have invested a lot of money and haven’t had the upside,” he cautioned.

“There is a craft to what we do. Our big challenge is growing more talent here in Australia.”

Mr Ward said that university fundraising was far more sophisticated than “building relationships over a cup of coffee”. Rather than simply angling for donors, the job often involved “building business cases for philanthropists”.

He cited a case in which an academic had initially sought A$150,000 for a research project. “We worked with the researcher on the true scope of what could be achieved, talked with a funder and secured A$6.3 million for a multi-year deal.

“That’s because the researcher had the ambition, and the funder wanted to do it. It’s about where we can create new value – not just incremental value.”

Many of Australia’s old guard institutions have set philanthropic fundraising targets of at least A$500 million, with two – the universities of Sydney and Melbourne – seeking double that figure. Newer institutions are also setting ambitious goals, with La Trobe University recently announcing a A$100 million target after receiving a one-off A$30 million donation.

Australian universities often have targets for donor numbers as well as dollars, aiming to secure contributions of any scale. Mr Ward said that of the 6,000 people who had given to Monash last year, about 5,000 had injected relatively small individual amounts into scholarships.

He said that many alumni treasured the “formative influence” of their alma maters and wanted to make similar opportunities available to young people facing economic barriers.

But he said that 75 per cent of Monash fundraising came from the top 25 per cent of donors, most of whom were contributing to specific research projects. “A lot of people didn’t think that universities needed philanthropy,” he said.

“We’re not asking people to give their philanthropy to Monash. We’re asking them to give it through Monash to areas of impact and importance. We’ve got the smartest people working on the biggest problems.”

He said that this approach differed from that of the universities of North America and the UK, where alumni were often expected to donate to central endowment funds or ancient Oxbridge colleges.

But while Australia lacked social engagement opportunities such as college athletics or reunions at 700-year-old halls, it benefited from rapidly growing numbers of international alumni – many now executives in thriving Asia-Pacific companies.

“We haven’t done anything with them for 30 years, so that’s where we’re behind,” Mr Ward conceded. “The good news is that they had a great experience at Australian universities. It made a difference to their success in life.”

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