Telephone fundraising ‘increasingly ineffective’ for universities

Experts tell THE summit that Zuckerberg-Chan gift illustrates changing nature of philanthropy

October 8, 2016
A man phones in front of portraits of the Salvador Dali (L) and Vincent Van Gogh (R)
Source: Getty
Don’t call us…: although phone calls had been an ‘amazingly successful’ way of raising money over the past four decades, alumni have told Stanford that they would rather speak to the university when they chose, not when the phone rang

Contacting alumni by telephone to ask for donations is an increasingly ineffective tool for university fundraising, a conference has heard.

Martin Shell, the vice-president for development at Stanford University, told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit that his institution had closed its phone bank last month because graduates were becoming less happy to be contacted in this way.

Although Mr Shell said that phone calls had been an “amazingly successful” way of raising money over the past four decades, alumni have told Stanford that they would rather speak to the university when they chose, not when the phone rang.

“Five years ago, for every eight successful phone calls we made, we had one person say ‘please take me off your call list’; in the last two years it went to three to one,” Mr Shell told the event at the University of California, Berkeley.

“If you are in the business of developing lifelong relationships and if you are in the business of connecting with people in ways that they [want] to be connected, then, if for every three people you connect with, one says take me off the list, maybe we need to rethink the way we do that.”

Julie Hooper, vice-chancellor of university development and alumni relations at Berkeley, said that universities would need to change their funding operations in other ways as so-called millennials born between 1980 and 2000 became potential donors.

She said that, while millennials wanted to change the world, they “don’t necessarily see elite institutions of higher education as the way to have the impact”, and argued that universities needed to follow charities’ lead in using technology to demonstrate an immediate return on a gift.

Mr Shell called on universities to put greater emphasis on their ability to use a donation to create impact and leverage additional funds “in a way that so many other places may not”, highlighting Stanford and Berkeley’s participation in the $600 million (£472 million) “biohub” funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan with the aim of curing, preventing or managing all disease by the end of this century.

The facility, announced on 22 September as part of a $3 billion philanthropic initiative, will be hosted by the University of California, San Francisco.

Ms Hooper said that the Zuckerberg-Chan gift had pressed institutions that would not usually collaborate to work together and argued that this type of collaboration was likely to be a “model for how future philanthropic efforts at this level will be shaped”.

Mr Shell agreed, but said that the cross-disciplinary approach taken by Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Chan illustrated how universities had “a lot of work to do” inside their own campuses to break down “silos” that departments operated in if they wanted to continue to engage with donors.

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