Accelerating Ambitions report: the momentum builds

12 October 2023


Accelerating Ambitions: a decade of giving to higher education and how it informs the future is already a month old! Following the launch at the CASE Europe Annual Conference in Edinburgh and discussion by Vice-Chancellors at the Universities UK Conference in Manchester, the conversation around the CASE-More report is setting wheels turning.

On 3 October, 50 advancement leaders from universities across the country joined us in the Chancellor’s Hall of the University of London’s iconic Senate House to explore further. What stands out from the report and crucially, where do we individually and collectively go from here? Through panel and group discussions, the gathering of professionals started to bring its recommendations to life.

The panel discussion opened with comments from Liesl Elder, Chief Development Officer at the University of Oxford. Reflecting on the gap between the acceleration in giving to universities and public awareness of higher education as an effective vehicle for philanthropy, Liesl said, “we need to be talking more about what we do and less about what we need”. She gave the example of Oxford’s malaria vaccine, the product of 30 years of research and just now cleared for global roll-out – a real game changer in the fight against the deadly disease.

Philanthropy at the leadership table

Liesl also strongly endorsed one of the report’s main themes, the vital importance of institutional leadership engaging with a university’s philanthropic ambitions. Colleagues at tables discussed the barriers to deeper involvement of key academics – whether related to ideology, access, or turnover. It’s important, they agreed, to create the conditions for senior leadership and academics to be successful at fundraising and to enjoy it.

Leadership from the top was vigorously championed on the panel by Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal at the Royal Academy of Music. He shared with us the “transformative” effect of having a VP Advancement with a wider strategic remit at the top table. From his perspective this has not only created the conditions for philanthropy to flourish but it has also benefitted the organisation’s overall strategic insight and direction. Fellow-panellist Kirsty MacDonald, this very Deputy Principal (Advancement) at the Academy, had herself commented on this in a guest blog published last month. Here, she expanded on other factors that have made specialist institutions such as the Academy star philanthropic performers over the past decade: the close links they have built through the shared passion of donors and scholarship students, how single subject specialism has enabled engagement with non-alumni donors, and loyal alumni who, although they may not have had high-earning careers, are entering into thoughtful legacy conversations.

Tomorrow’s giving: alumni, legacies, and corporates

The report highlights that alumni donor numbers are up by only 11% since 2012 among participants in the CASE Insights UK and Ireland survey while alumni numbers have grown by 80%. On the panel too, Mary Haworth, Director of Philanthropic Partnerships and Alumni at the​ University of York, reflected on the idea that young, disengaged alumni are “ticking time bombs” for our programmes. Work under way at York seeks to build alumni engagement for the future, investing in digital tech and the student experience. In discussion, colleagues pointed out that the fall in alumni participation in giving is echoed in the US. What will it take to reverse the trend on either side of the Atlantic, considering the alumni of tomorrow, diverse in their priorities, experiences and attitudes?

Two growth areas were highlighted during the evening both by the panel and at the table discussions: legacy giving and corporate fundraising, with a shared enthusiasm to do more and better. There was a feeling that corporate partnerships needed the right approach to avoid ethical challenges but presented clear potential for synergies and effectiveness within an institution. As for legacy fundraising at a time when the great generational transfer of wealth is upon us, colleagues in the room agreed that this was less about a new type of fundraising but rather a vehicle that every major gift fundraiser should embrace with urgency, following the example of charities such as the National Trust and the RNLI.

Resources and metrics: are we doing the right things?

The 93% increase in philanthropy to UK HE over the past decade has been achieved with a workforce that has grown by less than half (47%). Participants in the debate called for stronger talent management programmes to attract, develop and retain this productive cadre of professionals. As an example, Mary Haworth shared the benefit of York’s engagement with the CASE graduate trainee programme.

Talent retention also depends on what we value and recognise in our work as fundraisers. How we measure our performance as a sector matters. Invigorating a legacy programme for instance requires recognition of a pipeline of donors as well as funds received. Should we pay closer attention to the longevity of donor relationships and the connection between regular giving and legacies asked one group. Regardless of the specific metrics, there was concern that participation in the CASE Insights survey had declined in the UK and Ireland. Evidence-led analysis such as the Accelerating Ambitions report depends on robust data to draw on. Colleagues were keen to encourage universities to engage with benchmarking: the wider the data set, the more rigorous the evidence it will provide.

In it for the long term

Finally, the debate shone a spotlight on the power of collective action and the importance of seeing philanthropy as the long-term game it is. The report helpfully reminds us of the rich history of our philanthropic tradition. Balancing the needs of today with the potential dividends in the medium to long term will be vital in underpinning our continued success: as one colleague put it, we are “planting the seed that our successors will harvest” – a healthy focus for our sector.

A broad range of institutions were represented at the event, and the report was universally acknowledged for its nuanced approach, recognising the needs and opportunities of institutions at different stages of philanthropic evolution. The series of playbooks at the end of the document enables HEIs to move forward from a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Who you are as an institution and where you are on your philanthropic journey helps shape a distinct pathway to fundraising success.

We would like to thank Bill Abraham and his team at the University of London for enabling this event to take place, our expert panel of speakers, and all the participants for their energy, insight and commitment. We look forward to seeing fundraisers continue to move the conversation forward as together we strengthen a sustainable philanthropic platform for the future.

Read the full report, including forecasts for the next 10 years and recommendations here.