The growth and professionalisation of fundraising in UK higher education over the last decade or so is a real, and often unremarked upon, success story.
In ten years, UK universities have doubled the amount they’ve raised from philanthropy to over £1billion per year. And it’s not just the usual suspects that have helped achieve this. There are now 46 universities that raise over £2.5m a year and 35 that raise over £5m annually.
Although this is good news, we also need to recognise that it plays into a wider narrative of universities enjoying a period of expansion while many of the towns and cities they are part of are having to deal with low growth, low productivity, a lack of opportunity for citizens and a loss of belonging in local community. This story, which the Civic University Commission heard up and down the country, led to the conclusion that the university’s civic role is now more important than ever before.
The recent growth of fundraising capacity within universities seems an obvious opportunity for civic universities to really enhance their “anchor” role by facilitating a step-change in philanthropic giving to the places they are from.
As a minimum, universities could use the capability of their fundraisers to raise much needed giving to place-based projects that would provide a mutual benefit to the community and university. This would not necessarily need to be large in scale. A few small pilot projects can enrich any place. But we do think that more could be done.
Universities that are more ambitious and want to adopt a transformative and strategic approach to enhancing philanthropic giving to their place should consider establishing what we call University Community Foundations (UCFs).
What is a University Community Foundation?
UCFs would be a new kind of foundation. A partnership between a university and the local community, which would provide a focus for drawing down philanthropic giving and support to community projects and charities, while aligning with the charitable objectives of the university.
- UCFs would be independent charities, supporting projects in their local area .
- The university would be the member (similar to how corporate foundations work) and would appoint the Chair and Trustee Board. Best practice would dictate that the governing body would include representatives from the university and local community (civic leaders, wider staff body, civil society, etc) .
- UCFs could be funded in several ways. One approach would be a mixed funding model where the university provides resources and in-kind support and it raises additional (and the majority of its) funding from charitable donations.
- The UCF would need to align with the charitable objects of the university.
- They would work in partnership with other community organisations, charities and cultural bodies (and may for example, fund many of these groups to run projects).
There are three key reasons why UCFs could make a real difference.
While there may be some nervousness that UCFs would provide unwanted competition with the fundraising aims of the university (particularly as the sector enters an increasingly challenging and uncertain environment), the aims of the UCFs would be to leverage funding from sources that would not typically fund universities.
There is a growing interest in the issue of “place” among foundations and private donors (the 2018 Giving Trends report from the Association of Charitable Foundations found a growing interest in “place” among its 300 plus members). These sources may not be interested in funding universities but could be willing to support initiatives that help disadvantaged communities. The UCF would be in a better place to tap into this funding than the university because as a community-orientated charity its entire mission aligns with the objectives of the funder. It also sidesteps the problem of preconceived perceptions of what a university does.
UCFs could also provide a neutral space between local business, the public sector, civil society and the university itself. This would enhance its convening power and may convince local businesses – through their CSR aims – to support key initiatives.
The key finding from the Civic University Commission was that while there is a huge amount of civic activity taking place, it is not necessarily based on the real needs of its community. The UCFs would help change this. It would empower the community voice through its governance structure, enabling civic and community players to shape its strategy and activities. The university would benefit because of the shared decision-making process, and a shared ownership of its strategy and activities.
The recent UUK/Britain Thinks research showed that a large proportion of the country is unaware of the impact the university has on its local community. UCFs could help change this. While small, community-based projects may never be a priority for university communications teams, an independent UCF will be keen to show its funders, partners and trustees that it is making a difference. The university will in turn receive “incidental benefit” from the profile and reputation of the University Community Foundation.
The UCF would have the dual benefit of being integrated into the community while having the capacity of the university behind it.
As universities think about developing an effective civic mission for the twenty-first century, UCFs would play an important role in building upon the great work that exists to enhance places, people and the universities themselves.