The Role of Philanthropy at Leicester
There is no quicker conversation stopper at a party than saying you work for a university Development Office. But those in the know realise there’s a lot more to it than ‘rattling a tin’, and the rewards can be spectacular: as the recent £7 million donation to the University of Leicester from a single benefactor testifies.
The donation, from the John & Lucille van Geest Foundation, will help build a new Biomarker Facility next to the University’s state-of-the-art Cardiovascular Research Centre at Glenfield Hospital, bringing together the expertise of its renowned academic research team with that of cardiovascular consultants, surgeons and informaticians. It could potentially transform the lives of patients not just in Leicestershire and Rutland and the rest of the UK, but across the world.
Eighteen months ago, we had no idea that our fundraising would take off in just the way it has. We were raising funds for the flagship £12.6 million research centre and were pleased with our success so far, with over £5 million raised from various Trusts and Foundations and a successful public campaign, in addition to the £4 million committed by the University.
The decision by the van Geest Foundation to make such a large donation is the result not just of months of fundraising work by the University, but of years of investment. It shows that, with a professional team and the right approach, it is not just the long-standing fundraising operations of Russell Group universities that can attract very sizeable donations.
Yet amazingly, up and down the country, the word is that some universities are reducing development staff or holding back on investment in a very short-sighted attempt to cut costs. Leicester may have been tempted to do the same, had its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, and senior management team not had the vision to realise the growing importance of philanthropy in higher education. They were prepared to back and fund the necessary steps needed to attract significant fundraising returns. What are these?
First, you must have a professional, dedicated development team, not only for courting would be donors at black tie dinners, as some may think, but offering a clear, medium and longer-term fundraising strategy. Then, at Leicester we made sure that fundraising was seen as a collaborative effort, and that academics working together with fundraisers could bring their unique passion and expert knowledge to the preparation of bids and discussions with prospective donors. We are striving to become a fundraising university not just a university with a Development Office which knows its place.
Thirdly, we have recruited a Development Board, whose non-executive members are drawn from the professions, business and Third Sector, who understand the way their communities tick, are respected in those circles and are able to open doors.
And finally, you must have patience. The returns on development work are rarely quick; someone who donates no more than a hundred pounds in their lifetime may end up leaving their whole estate as a gift in their will. While it may be tempting to delay or cut back on investment in your Development Team, it could mean your institution misses out on that single donation that could be transformative.
Leicester has doubled its income from donations every year over the past three years, since investing in a Development Team, and had more donors last year than ever before with an ROI which is hard to match elsewhere on campus. Philanthropy in the higher education sector across the UK is also growing with an increasing number of individual gifts of £1 million or more made to education. The sector raised over £0.6 billion in philanthropic income in 2010-11 – fourteen per cent up on the previous year – and while the Russell Group dominated, the smaller 1994 Group of research universities raised £64 million.
The UK does not have the American model of fundraising for higher education – and I am not suggesting we move en bloc towards it. Nor can we, or should we, rely on philanthropy for everything. Philanthropists are not generally interested in supplying core funding for the essentials.
But philanthropy allows us to do things we would not otherwise have done, or to do them better and faster. It is not just the preserve of major gifts but supporters can make a big difference through ‘one off’ or regular gifts small or large through the University’s Annual Fund which has raised over £500k to support our students, scholarships and hardship funds since being established in 2004. On a major scale it also allows successful and wealthy people and organisations to make a big difference through transformational gifts. Despite the present economic climate, the number of millionaires and billionaires in the UK is rising, and while not all are philanthropically minded, many want to give and they want us to open the discussion and ultimately ask them for support. We may be experiencing really tough economic times but as development professionals dare we not believe that more of those least affected are more minded than ever to see how they can give back.
Higher education is a particularly attractive sector in which to invest because of its unique ability to generate new knowledge and achieve breakthroughs to the benefit both of individuals and of society. There is a thirst, and a willingness, to be part of that process – particularly in relation to health-related research and the big diseases that touch many of our lives - and a genuine and powerful desire to translate new knowledge into improved prevention, treatment and care as quickly as possible.
Leicester has chosen to invest in tapping into this potential, and the record donation from the van Geest Foundation shows what can be achieved, if Development and fundraising leadership in universities is fully supported and backed by all. And of course there are few better endorsements for institutional self-belief and confidence.
Steve O’Connor is Director of Development at the University of Leicester