The proportion of alumni prepared to make a donation to their alma mater is static despite a ratcheting-up of effort by university fundraisers, according to a new report.
An analysis of the performance in 2006-07 of fundraising departments in 144 UK higher education institutions found that universities made more money than ever before but failed to increase the proportion of alumni willing to give.
The findings support the notion that philanthropic giving is an increasingly important source of income, albeit on a far smaller scale than in the US.
However, the fact that the proportion of alumni who donate has not risen - in fact it has fallen slightly, year on year - has caused concern, particularly given the likely impact of the financial downturn on people's willingness to part with cash.
In 2006-07, the sector raised a total of £548 million, up £131 million on the previous year, although £52.5 million of this amount was from institutions new to the survey.
The universities of Cambridge and Oxford, which both have £1 billion fundraising campaigns under way, led the pack, raising £9 million between them.
The report says: "Habitually, Oxford and Cambridge raise more than the next leading institutions by a factor of more than ten."
Fundraising activities in the UK have undergone a period of professionalisation in recent years, with many now led by experts employed for their knowledge of the more developed "institutional advancement" departments of North American universities.
According to the survey, which was carried out by the Ross Group of Development Directors and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (Case) in Europe, there are now more than 700 fundraising staff across the 144 institutions polled.
However, it also found that, of the 6.2 million alumni these institutions are in touch with, just over 108,000, or fewer than one in 50, donated money.
This was a slightly smaller proportion of donors than in the preceding year, although the figures are marginal, and only ten institutions had over 4 per cent of alumni agreeing to donate.
One consequence is that the cost of fundraising activities as a proportion of income rose from 24 pence per pound to 26 pence, year on year.
'PERSEVERE. FUNDRAISING IS ABOUT BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE'
Liesl Elder, director of development at the University of Edinburgh, explains the importance of fundraising even in a downturn.
"There are two camps with regard to how to respond to the economic downturn.
"Some folks feel that it is time to pull back, while others think that it's a great time to be out there because we're building for the future. I'm in the latter camp.
"At Edinburgh we're moving full steam ahead, and although our cash results are slightly down on last year, that was a record year, so actually we're delighted with where we are.
"Because philanthropy to universities is relatively young here, it's difficult to know what to expect.
"The thing to remember is that a lot of university development offices are just a couple of people, so it's true that fledgeling operations probably are more at risk.
"My advice is always to persevere. Fundraising is a long-term proposition - it is about building something for the future. Right now we're reaping the rewards of seeds that were sown three, five or ten years ago.
"If you pull back now, you will see the effects down the line. So the objective is to weather the storm, to be sensitive in talking to people, but to keep going, because there's definitely success to be had out there."