University fundraising and the storytelling crisis

A tough ride for the sector in the media has implications for charitable giving to universities. Holly Palmer and Lee Durbin outline some of the work underway to understand this growing issue.

It’s been three years since the suicide of a 92-year-old poppy seller from Bristol first made national headlines.

Olive Cooke, it was claimed, had been “hounded to death by cold callers”, but whilst her family were keen to emphasise that charity fundraising wasn’t responsible for her death, there can be no doubt that Olive was taken for granted as a generous supporter – having sold poppies since 1938, she was said in more recent years to have received hundreds of fundraising letters and calls each month. As damning headlines made clear over the following year, charity fundraising had lost its way and neglected basic standards of donor care in its pursuit of fundraising targets, leading to deep soul-searching within the sector – and plenty of new regulatory oversight to boot.

An existential problem

Meanwhile, Wonkhe has described the “crisis of storytelling” within the higher education sector, and the struggle to convey a coherent narrative about the value of universities to their stakeholders. The largest group of stakeholders universities have are its alumni, many of whom give time and money to their alma mater when asked through student telephone fundraisers and direct mail appeals. They fund scholarships, medical research, and student initiatives, but whilst the sector is now raising around £1 billion annually, growth in alumni donor numbers across the last three years has been minimal.

If responding to the sector’s crisis of storytelling calls for a deeper understanding of how a university creates value, not just for itself but for others also, then fundraising is well placed to do this. Fundraising has the best stories to tell and the best reasons to tell them – but stagnant alumni donor numbers and disappointing mystery shopping exercises suggest that we have more to learn from the charity sector’s existential crisis than we’d like to think. Who will listen to the many stories that universities want to tell, if they are struggling to engage one of their largest and warmest audiences?

The donor experience

The public’s growing mistrust of established institutions demands that we reflect on our own fundraising practices, particularly when many of the missteps taken by charities are in danger of becoming commonplace within university development offices faced with increasingly ambitious fundraising targets. We as a sector have not experienced a backlash against our fundraising efforts on the scale endured by charities, but we cannot hope to repair our ailing reputation if we do not learn by their example – nor can we hope to create value for others to the extent that we should if our donors and alumni feel unloved.

Delivering an outstanding donor experience isn’t easy. Typical “major gift fundraisers” raise the kind of money that allows for significant capital builds by developing strong relationships with a handful of donors, but how can their alumni development colleagues build similarly strong relationships with the hundreds or thousands of donors for whom £10 a month is a considerable investment? What does that sort of donor experience look like, and what are the impediments to forming such deep bonds with the wider community of alumni who choose to give back to their alma mater?

In 1992 Ken Burnett published a book called Relationship Fundraising, the basic premise being that if you treat people properly then they’re far more likely to continue doing business with you. 25 years later Ken was responsible for initiating The Commission on the Donor Experience, whose 22 projects released their findings last year in an effort to put the donor, and not fundraising targets, at the heart of fundraising strategies. Since then a successor project has been launched by the Institute of Fundraising known as the Donor Experience Project, but whereas the Commission didn’t consider higher education within its work, it is now doing so – and Holly Palmer Consulting is leading a research study in this area.

Bringing light to a dark corner

We will publish for the first time a comprehensive overview of the approach taken towards the donor experience within the higher education sector and set out an evidence-based vision for how fundraising could change for the better over the next decade. Guided by an advisory board that includes experienced professionals and new voices, we will seek the views of practitioners across the sector to understand how they feel about the donor experience on offer, and what they think holds universities back from improving it.

We aim to publish our findings in early 2019, but we don’t see it ending there – it is our hope that the research will inspire a movement to champion the donor experience as both a means of sustainable growth and an opportunity to demonstrate to our closest community that they matter.

This is a key moment in the history of higher education philanthropy, and the role that development plays in fostering allies cannot be overemphasised. It is true that we have powerful stories to tell in higher education, but a change in public perception will depend on there being people willing to listen.

3 responses to “University fundraising and the storytelling crisis

  1. Great to hear that you are leading on this research. I’d not heard that phrase ‘crisis of storytelling’ before but I do think HE institutions have some great stories to tell, and they don’t always articulate these with the confidence they deserve. I’ve just been talking to a new member of staff about a University project which seeks to have our city designated as the first slavery free city in the world. Perhaps this is the kind of story that has the potential to unite alumni and members of the public, and positively change perceptions of what we stand for. We need to be more confident in telling these stories.

    On a different topic, the point you make about how the donor experience for a £10 per month donor varies from a major donor is an interesting one. I have heard colleagues argue for facilitating a direct relationship between a donor and a beneficiary to be the preserve of the £25k plus donor, which intuitively feels wrong to me. As Stephen Pidgeon would say, we need to stop the obsession with expecting donors to give to HE ‘funds’ and show them real people that will benefit from their donations.

  2. A plea that the research you are undertaking is intimately tied into actual practice. The mystery shopping exercise you undertook was by your own admission a study into stewardship of non-alumni donors. I still maintain that this was largely a study into those universities’ response to something that almost never happens – i.e. non-alumni randomly giving. Was it useful to judge the quality of ALL stewardship by making a gift which is not representative of most of the gifts which will be being stewarded?

  3. Hi Adrian – sorry for the delayed response.

    Completely agree the research needs to be tied into actual practice, which is why the research participants are exclusively practitioners and many of our questions focus on behaviour. The qual phase is now complete, and the themes that have emerged will be tested in a survey which all practitioners in the sector will be invited to complete – I do hope you’ll share your thoughts too.

    On the point about extrapolating the results of our mystery shopping exercise, I’d say that we didn’t judge the quality of all stewardship based solely on the results of the exercise. We also based it on my experience as a donor to my alma mater, the stagnating alumni donor numbers reported in Ross-CASE, and our professional experience having recently worked in the sector.

    One last point: one of the institutions included in the mystery shopping exercise mistakenly assumed that we were in fact alumni and treated us as such. The experience was no better than those for who didn’t make this assumption.

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