Turn them on to filling the coffers

February 25, 2005

If you want alumni to give your institution cash, then you have to be prepared to put in the groundwork and make friends with them first, says Harriet Swain

Remember that business studies student you caught sub-letting library books? He's just made his fifth million in property. And that English graduate who got invited to the vice-chancellor's Christmas lunch? She recently made a mint from selling her PR consultancy. How do you get them to share their fortunes with those who helped make it all possible - you or, at least, your university?

You ask them, says Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, who chaired a recent task force on voluntary giving to higher education.

Thomas says two things are crucial to fundraising: serious leadership and a professional, well-run campaigns and development office with a proper administrative database. It will also need some investment, but this is certain to be repaid. The report estimates that every £100,000 spent produces between £600,000 and £1 million. Much of this investment should be spent fostering relations with alumni. "Don't just think you can go out and ask someone for a donation if you haven't been communicating and making friends over a significant period of time," he warns.

Thomas's report states that alumni and supporters of the institution should be made to feel so involved with the institution that asking for donations does not come as a surprise. This attitude should not just be fostered in the development office but throughout the institution, and reinforced through, for example, special artistic events or subject and year associations. Donors should always be kept informed of what has been achieved with their gifts and the report also recommends that institutions should become better at recognising and celebrating giving, publicising large donations, so long as the donors agree, and acknowledging the gross level of donations, including tax relief.

Joanna Motion, vice-president for international operations at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, says that US students are treated as future alumni as soon as they start their first year, and are aware of what will be expected of them.

Adrian Beney, deputy director of development and alumni relations at Durham University, who has conducted statistical analysis of reasons for giving, says you should not be too sensitive about asking people who have just graduated. He says that while recent graduates may have loans to repay and relatively low incomes, they also usually have fewer financial commitments and developing a habit of giving early is invaluable. But he stresses that this must be done within the context of a relationship that goes beyond asking for money. This may entail offering long-term careers advice or asking alumni to speak to students about their experiences of work.

Paul Palmer, professor of voluntary sector management at Sir John Cass Business School, says: "Where most UK universities go wrong is they think their alumni are interested in what they think is interesting and what they fail to do is find out what turns on their alumni." The important question to ask is why a particular alumnus should want to keep in touch.

He says this demands a sophisticated database, including details of alumni interests and personal profiles, including how much they enjoyed their university years. This enables fundraisers to predict whether someone may be interested in donating money towards a particular building or may reveal, for example, a personal tragedy that may make them more inclined to donate to medical research. "That sounds like ambulance chasing but quite honestly that's what fundraising often is," he says. Indeed, legacies are a potentially lucrative source of alumni donation often neglected by higher education fundraisers, he adds.

Palmer stresses that not all alumni are the same and that campaigns will need to target wealthy individuals in a particular way. Thomas's report states that the costs of approaching different groups of donors vary and suggests that new operations may want to build credibility within their institution by focusing on those who provide high returns for the least investment. Motion says while it is vital to identify those 10 per cent of donors likely to supply 90 per cent of your fundraising return, research from the US shows that most large donors started small.

The best way to make contact with any potential donor is to pick up the phone - or better still, try to meet face to face. Beney says that the telephone is statistically five times better than mail at producing a response from donors and the amount people give is two to three times bigger as well. Face-to-face contact is even more effective.

Once you've secured the promise of money, you have to make sure your institution is benefiting as much as possible. Lucinda Frostick, communications manager at the Institute of Fundraising, advises keeping an eye on new fundraising products - for example, new arrangements involving lifetime legacies - and stresses the importance of making full use of tax benefits.

"People are reassured when they have a full number of options and can take a grown-up attitude and think about how they are going to give, rather than just writing out a cheque for a tenner," she says.

So long as everything is above board, successful fundraising is mainly a matter of hard work, Thomas says. "There is nothing magic about it. Like every other part of the organisation, if you run it well and do it properly, then it will bring returns."

Further information Relationship Fundraising by Ken Burnett, Jossey-Bass (2002) Conducting a Successful Annual Giving Programme, by Kent Dove et al, Jossey-Bass(2001) Council for the Advancement and Support of Education: www.case.org

www.institute-of-fundraising.org.uk

TOP TIPS

Don't forget to make the case for why giving is necessary

Build an ongoing relationship between alumni and the university

Telephone rather than write if you can

Don't forget recent graduates - or the potential of legacies

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