Can all universities become great fundraising institutions?

by Malcolm Press - 6 September 2023


Last week, we at More Partnership were pleased to launch the CASE-More UK Philanthropy Report in partnership with CASE. The report, ‘Accelerating ambitions: a decade of giving to higher education and how it informs the future’, revisits the predictions and recommendations of the 2012 Review of Philanthropy in UK Higher Education (Pearce Report), with a 10-year analysis of fundraising trends to inform future directions.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be inviting colleagues from across Higher Education to discuss what the findings mean for the sector and the advancement profession.

Today, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor Malcolm Press CBE, reflects on his own journey and offers some lessons for fundraising success.

Until the publication of the Thomas Report on Voluntary Giving to UK Universities in 2004, the popular perception was that philanthropy was the preserve of few well-known research-intensive institutions attracting support from a small number of benefactors. Some well-established universities benefited from philanthropy, but most did not. Philanthropists may give to US institutions, but it wasn’t a British habit. This isn’t true now, and wasn’t even true then.

Back in 2004, several UK universities were actively involved in fundraising, and many increasingly successfully. The Thomas Report revealed a growing sector which, with strategic investment, could yield significant returns. Vice-Chancellors across the country responded by starting new, or growing existing, development and alumni relations functions. By the time of the Pearce Review in 2012, increased investment had led to greater returns and more institutions than ever were securing six and seven figure donations.

The Pearce Review communicated the impact and potential of philanthropy within higher education. But it was also clear that more could be done. The Review made 14 recommendations. First among these was that ‘all universities should develop institutional advancement plans . . . [and invest] consistently with a view to longer term benefits.’ Ten years on, it’s hard to argue that this first recommendation has been followed in full.

Now, the new CASE-More UK Philanthropy Report, Accelerating ambitions: a decade of giving to higher education and how it informs the future, gives us evidence of what’s been happening. Investment has risen but it has been lumpy. University development and alumni relations divisions vary enormously in size, maturity, and focus. As a rule, greater investment has been made in older, and traditionally research-intensive, universities while some universities fail to have any operation at all. When I became the Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University in 2015, my institution was pretty close to the latter end of this continuum. However, I made it a priority to invest in our Development and Alumni Relations Office.

I did so because I had directly experienced the benefits of fundraising when working previously in Russell Group redbricks. For example, as a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, I worked closely with the University’s Development and Alumni Division to secure an eight-figure donation to establish a forest research institute. The key to success was the combination of the donor’s interests and my own research expertise, coupled with the talents of the University’s fundraising professionals.

Given that research excellence and impact are found across the higher education sector, as evidenced by the last Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021), there is no reason why securing transformational gifts cannot be repeated everywhere. But to do so requires strategic intent, investment of time as well as money, and leadership.

At my institution, our division has grown to 20 members of staff across alumni engagement, fundraising and development services. We actively solicit six- and seven-figure donations and each year 10,000 of our students have meaningful engagement with alumni, supporting the student experience and the employability of our graduates.

10 years on from the Pearce Review, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey at Manchester Metropolitan; what has worked well and what we might have done differently.

Lesson 1: Ambition drives all
The truism that the number one reason people don’t give is because they aren’t asked, was certainly the case at Manchester Metropolitan. I’d also add, that when we did ask, we often asked at the wrong level.

Historically, there had been a lack of ambition. The University was grateful for what it received rather than hungry for more. That certainly isn’t the case today and our Development and Alumni Relations team solicit major donations for work across the University. My colleagues and I are proud to ask and to challenge our supporters to give at their capacity.

But being ambitious in our ask alone isn’t enough. We also need to be ambitious in our vision and projects. A priority now is to challenge my academic colleagues to think bigger in terms of their research potential, developing projects that can inspire philanthropists to give at a transformational level.

Lesson 2: Develop a fundraising university, not just a fundraising office
I am extremely proud of the talented Development and Alumni Relations team that we have appointed; they are experienced, skilled and achieve results. But I have come to realise that an effective fundraising office isn’t enough. To make a step change in philanthropy, we need to move from having just a fundraising office to becoming a fundraising university. We need to develop a culture where academic colleagues feel empowered to play a lead role in securing philanthropic funds. To this end, with the Director of Development and the Head of Philanthropy, I have established a Philanthropy Steering Group of senior academic colleagues. This group has been formed to identify opportunities and embed philanthropy across the faculties.

Lesson 3: Invest for the long-term
Manchester Metropolitan has a long history, we can trace our origins back to 1824. I am acutely aware that being a Vice-Chancellor is to be a custodian. The achievements of our university today are in part due to the foundations laid by others before us. Some of the fruits of the investment in development and alumni relations will be reaped in the longer term. Investing now for the University’s future prosperity is an obligation.

Lesson 4: People matter
I enjoy being an ambassador for the University and soliciting funds to further our mission. However, one-to-one meetings, attending events, and hosting campus visits can take a significant amount of my time. This is only possible with an efficient and reliable Development and Alumni Relations team. As universities have increased their fundraising operations, recruiting talented staff can be a challenge. I would advocate Vice-Chancellors taking a personal interest in the appointment of senior development staff and investing in their professional development. Finally, don’t underestimate the convening power of an influential Chancellor and senior alumni in global positions; they can make a difference.

Lesson 5: We need to get better at explaining why higher education matters
At times, it can feel as though the sector is assailed from all sides. In the UK, the media, government, and others increasingly challenge and question our worth. This is healthy; we should be accountable. But we should also be clear and loud about our contribution to society. We advance knowledge and transform lives. We need to do even more as an academic community to show how we enhance the prospects of individuals, drive the economy, enrich society, and make the world a better place for all.

Lesson 6: Copy good practice but follow your own path
Back in 2015, I sought to establish at Manchester Metropolitan University a development and alumni relations programme in the mould of what I had experienced at Russell Group universities. Much of that still stands. Development and alumni relations programmes should be at scale, ambitious, and impactful. However, they should also reflect the unique character and priorities of the institution. We have developed programmes and projects that fit with our institutional priorities, and this, in turn, has influenced who we have asked for support. Practices at other institutions can influence, but they shouldn’t determine.

Looking ahead
Since the Pearce Review, giving to the higher education sector has increased by 93%, reaching a record high of £1.5bn last year. But the rate of progress varies enormously among universities. Specialist universities have shown fast growth and Oxbridge has cemented its position, accounting for almost half of all new funds raised. Disappointingly, the philanthropic income raised by many universities has remained largely flat across the last ten years.

Where will the sector be in another ten years? Well, in the spirt of the original Pearce Review, please indulge some predictions of my own.

1. Philanthropic income will continue to grow but polarisation of the sector will remain and may increase further.

2. The lead determinants of success will be leadership and investment. Vice-Chancellors must take philanthropy seriously and embed a culture of ambitious fundraising at their institutions.

3. Corporate donations will cluster around supporting inclusion, and large civic universities will benefit because of their hinterlands.

4. Research excellence and impact will continue to drive growth in seven- and eight-figure donations.

Those universities that act now and invest will prosper. There is no reason why any university should be left behind.

About the author
Professor Malcolm Press CBE was appointed as Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University in 2015, having previously held positions at the universities of Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester and UCL.

Malcolm is an ecologist with over 200 publications covering the impacts of climate and environmental change, tropical rain forest ecology, and subsistence farming in sub-Saharan Africa. He has studied plants and environments in a diverse range of ecosystems from the tropics to the high Arctic.

Malcolm is a trustee of both the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and the British Council. He is a member of the boards of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and of Universities UK. Previously, he has served as president of the British Ecological Society, a trustee of the WWF, a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, a council member of the National Trust, a council member of the Society of Biology, and as a deputy chair for a Research Excellence Framework panel.

Malcolm was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2022 New Year Honours.