The Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre, funded almost entirely by a philanthropic campaign


Spotlight on Specialists

by Kirsty MacDonald - 25 September 2023


For the next in our series of guest blogs reflecting on the findings of the CASE-More UK Philanthropy Report, we speak to Deputy Principal (Advancement) at the Royal Academic of Music, Kirsty MacDonald. Kirsty tells us more about what’s underpinned the spectacular growth of fundraising in specialist institutions and what she’s learnt from her career spanning institutions across the Higher Education sector.

A sign of how far we’ve come
I love data. So much that I comb through the results of the CASE Insights on Philanthropy (United Kingdom and Ireland), formerly the CASE-Ross Survey, in forensic detail. I’m a big believer in benchmarking and looking to others to realise the possibilities. The Pearce Report in 2012 was groundbreaking in that respect – so much data to draw on. When reading the CASE-More Report ten years on, it brings into focus for me just how far we’ve come as a profession.

Why does this matter? Because it sends a really important signal to philanthropists that we can self-reflect on what we’re doing, the difference we’re making and where we’re going. I imagine that’s pretty reassuring when you’re deciding whether to leave your gift to further the worthy ambitions of our institutions.

No big surprises, but a few lessons learned
I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the headlines of the report, which I think is a good reflection of the sector being more alert to what’s happening within peer institutions. I wasn’t shocked that the trajectory for fundraising has not kept pace with the predictions of the 2012 Pearce report. After all, few could have predicted COVID.

I am a little disappointed that, despite a good overall performance for higher education fundraising efforts, there are still obvious missed opportunities across the sector. I’m saddened that organisations chose to furlough fundraisers during COVID, a period when the Academy doubled its philanthropic income, mainly because we were able to maintain close contact and continue dialogue with current donors.

I’m also disappointed that the legacy market remains so untapped across the sector, particularly in some specialist institutions. Often, if someone wants to leave a bequest to a particular cause, like music or theatre, specialist institutions will naturally rise to the top of the list and it’s not uncommon to see a large legacy divided among a group of specialists with similar charitable objectives. Many of our growing pipeline of legators are alumni who haven’t given in their lifetime and we’re increasingly seeing more seven-figure legacies coming through – it’s a massive growth area for the Academy. In 2023 I am frustrated to hear that some universities don’t believe in investing in the longer term returns that legacy fundraising delivers.

Succeeding as a specialist
One huge positive for me was to see that new funds committed to specialist institutions has grown by an astounding 255% since 2012. One of the interviewees in the report says ‘Not everyone can bake the same cake’ and this is very true. But I think there are some distinct ingredients that make up that recipe for success for specialist institutions.

The first being the single focus of purpose. Of course, that will turn some people off. But for others it means their passion and commitment runs incredibly deep. It means we get more gifts from non-alumni and often draw on a very international group of philanthropists. Of course, a lot of specialists have ‘Royal’ in their title or a Royal patron, and that helps too. While comprehensive universities have breadth in their offer, specialists are often among the very best in the world at what they do and can communicate that with compelling clarity. So our audience may be smaller but my goodness, they are passionate and powerful!

This focus also helps with recruitment as it means specialists can recruit fundraisers that share the same passion. They love being in the organisation, telling that story, getting stuck in with those working in the institution and excited to be working with leaders in the discipline. I believe this means staff are willing to go the extra mile.

Because of these factors, you often find that fundraising teams at specialist institutions may be small but they’re high impact. At the Academy, our ROI is around 9 or even 10:1 and 30-50% of our institutional income comes from philanthropy. This helps to elevate the importance of our work internally because everyone at the top table can see philanthropy is essential to the financial sustainability of the organisation.

A seat at the top table
And speaking of the top table…there is no doubt that having that seat has been crucial to our success. I agree with the Report that this is probably one of the most important steps an organisation can take to create a culture of philanthropy. In order to be successful at fundraising, you need to embody the organisation – and you can only do that if you’re central to discussions around strategy, ideas and planning. In my current role, I even lead the organisation’s strategic planning process. I’ve been in previous roles where my inclusion was an afterthought and it makes everything so much harder when you basically get handed a list of priorities.

I predict we will see more fundraisers at the top table – and rightly so – as well as Advancement leaders going into CEO roles like Gemma Peters has done at Blood Cancer UK and now Macmillan Cancer Support. After all, our roles are about strategy, clarity of purpose and understanding supporters. It’s hard to find that mix of skills and insights from other disciplines.

It was also no surprise that one of the top factors of success is buy-in from institutional leaders. I work very closely with our leader, the Principal, Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood. He really is the most important factor in our success: he genuinely cares about the donors, he is unwavering in his support for fundraising and he has the personality to draw in people to the organisation in a way I’ve never witnessed elsewhere. We work hand in glove and as such I can come up with a new idea and immediately run with it – it makes for a very stimulating environment. This is how fundraising has become part of our collective thinking, which has been transformational for the Academy.

Growing fundraising at the Royal Academy of Music
When I started in this role seven years ago, I inherited a small team (plus a dog…no kidding), as well as a remarkable donor willing to underwrite the cost of what I needed to get the programme going. I recognise this was a rare and privileged position!

Because fundraising was seen as the main source of income growth, I also received significant internal support from the Principal, colleagues and the trustees. With this investment, we were able to raise our game and double the team to around 12 and the development team now totals 17 staff. I feel we’ve recruited some of the most talented fundraisers in the sector. It’s such a happy and committed team and nothing would have been possible without them. Building this team has been a game-changer, and justifies its position as the number one recommendation in the CASE-More Philanthropy report in my eyes.

Of course, I had to put all the infrastructure in place to start collecting data, research, processing Gift Aid etc. Then, we had to wait until we had the right volunteers around the table to start opening doors at the level we knew we needed (and we now have a gem of a development board!). This has been vital given our focus on non-alumni (like many specialists). A lot of this was hard graft, but along with some wise counsel from More Partnership, we’ve really made a difference. But we also had to do it alongside completing a capital campaign to finish the Susie Sainsbury Theatre. So, we were literally riding the bike while we were building it.

That’s life, of course, and many of you will be spinning the same plates. But because of the leadership commitment, long-term investment, the position of respect and support that fundraising has at the Academy, it feels like we’re finally able to fire on all cylinders.