5 reasons UK higher education fundraising still lags behind the USA

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2012

Last Friday’s Guardian-hosted #HElivechat on the role of the philanthropy in universities, on which I was one of the virtual panellists, covered a range of issues.

Inevitably at one stage the question turned to the difference in cultural attitudes between fundraising the UK and US. In general, I’m quite sceptical of the focus on this area: too often it’s used as a British excuse for laziness and/or failure in fundraising.

However, there’s no escaping there are attitudinal, behavioural and societal distinctions which mean the UK lags the US in fundraising. Here’s a by-no-means-exhaustive list I scribbled during the live-chat on why alumni giving rates are lower…

1) No established year giving programmes

Leaving gifts from ‘The Class of [Year]’ are, at best, sporadic in the UK. This means you don’t establish a conversation with alumni in which giving is an accepted part of the relationship until later. It also depresses your overall giving rate compared to the US as well.

2) Annual giving too often not seen as a specialism

Very often it’s the more junior members of a development office who focus on the annual fund while senior staff handle major gifts. It is also an area where there tends to be high staff turnover, which may even mean an institutions ‘skips’ doing an annual fund that year.

3) Even phone campaigns are still seen as controversial by some

This is changing, and most universities now do them — but there’s still some reticence.

4) Much less peer-asking

Generally I have no truck with the “the UK has no culture of philanthropy” stock reponses — they’re generally lazy excuses! — BUT there certainly is much less openness about asking classmates for gifts, either personally or by phone/mail. And peer-asking is of course the most effective form of fundraising.

5) Lack of data expertise

Because HE fundraising is still relatively new to the UK, there isn’t in most institutions yet the rich data that would enable smart segmentation, and tailored messaging. Most direct-mail is still a pretty blanket “Please give what you can” and sometimes a range of funding options at various giving levels.