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Our consultants have senior-level expertise in sectors that operate for the public good.

We work with non-profits and for-profits including universities, schools, charities, the NHS and arts/cultural organisations.

These institutions are educating our future leaders, providing a platform for talented artists and transforming lives.

But transformation has its challenges.

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Latest news

Lessons in leadership from Greta Thunberg

Aug 16, 2019

So the ‘grown ups’ are getting another lesson in leadership from Greta as she sets sail...

Here are my three top lessons in leadership from Greta:

1. Speak truth to power

Greta has shown us that radical candour is vital, that it’s ok to make your audience uncomfortable - in fact sometimes its kind to do so. She has travelled to our seats of power and has looked ‘leaders’ in the eye and told them that our house is on fire.

Greta wants us to change because she cares passionately about our future. Because she cares she tells us the truth. She lets us feel uncomfortable, in fact she wants us to be uncomfortable because the truth about the climate emergency we face is more than uncomfortable – it’s terrifying. She holds up a mirror and pushes us to look. She isn’t being ‘nice’ but she is ultimately being kind - she wants to save us.

We are all seeking feedback from others as we work. Even the most successful people I’ve worked with have sometimes asked, ‘Was that ok?’. We rarely get honest, kind feedback; we usually read between the lines and listen to our own inner critic. I was talking to someone who gives training, and they said that in every session the participants avoid giving critical feedback to fellow participants, because they are uncomfortable. But without that critique how are we to improve?

Great leaders will give us honest feedback (sometimes uncomfortably so) because they want us to succeed; they are championing us and our careers. They don’t avoid a ‘difficult’ conversation because of their own sake (to avoid discomfort) - they have the conversation for our sake (to help us grow). I am grateful to the boss who told me to “have an opinion”, to the boss who invested in voice coaching for me (“your voice lacks gravitas”), and to the boss who said, “It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be known for being good at what you do.” All these feedback moments felt hard, but they helped me more than those bosses know. If they hadn’t have been honest then I would not have learnt.

2. Know your stuff and keep it simple

Greta relentlessly focuses on the facts, the evidence. She knows her stuff and has clear messages that she repeats.... and repeats... And she checks we are listening - ‘Is my mic on? Can you hear me?’.

She pushes us to focus on the facts. She is clear. She makes complex information simple for us to digest.

The best leaders are able to tell a simple story of ‘what good looks like’. They evidence their view with robust data, yet they handle that data with flair and imagination. The combination of data, evidence and story is powerful - it creates a clear vision of where we need to get to. The keys to success lie in keeping it simple and having the determination, and patience to repeat it often.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

The best leaders have clear, powerful messages and they repeat them.

3. Walk the talk

Greta is absolutely living her values and challenging our views of what it’s ok to do. She shames the leaders who fly in jets to Davos as she climbs into a yacht to sail the Atlantic. More beautifully, she says, “I am not telling people what to do” as she heads off. No, she isn’t telling us. She is showing us. She is challenging us to change. She has the grit, determination and patience to spend two weeks sailing the Atlantic to make her point. She doesn’t ‘cop out’ and hop on a plane and then offset the emissions. She lives her message. Uncompromisingly. And interestingly this behaviour is so ‘provocative’ that grown adults with power feel the need to joke about and bully her via Twitter.

How many leaders really lead by example? How many go above and beyond to model the behaviours and values they espouse? People won’t believe or trust in someone who says one thing and then behaves in another way.

And if they don’t trust you how can you lead? How can you create psychological safety if you aren’t trustworthy?

If you can’t create psychological safety, people won’t feel safe to stretch themselves and take risks. They won’t get the best from you. Time and time again we hear that people don’t leave bad organisations, they leave bad managers. They don’t want to work with people they can’t believe in, people who don’t or won’t walk the talk.

One of the gifts of getting older is learning from younger people. It’s a joy to see young people like Greta challenging the ‘grown ups’ to do better. There is much we can learn. Most of it we may already think we know - but knowledge is nothing without action.

What have you learned from Greta?

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in higher education leadership.

Why are we still uncomfortable with university marketing?

Aug 13, 2019

In the last 2 weeks, I’ve taken screenshots of around 40 university adverts for Clearing that have appeared in my Facebook feed. I’m a parent of an 18-year old, so expect to be targeted with digital adverts. Most of us will also have been exposed to radio, outdoor or even print ads in the last few weeks, alongside the hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be spent on Google to reach those who are actively searching for Clearing places.

There is still a sense though, that the higher education sector isn’t entirely comfortable with this type of marketing. It seems to me that there are three possible reasons:

  1. Because marketing is still quite ‘new’ within a university structure and doesn’t have the support of all professional and academic colleagues. According to Marketing Week's Career & Salary Survey 2017, those marketing professionals working in education are the least positive about their colleagues’ views of marketing, with 14% suggesting marketing is not understood at all. So no matter the strength of the external marketing function, there is still a job to be done in selling the ‘how and why’ of marketing to its internal customers.

  2. Because it feels like blatant self-promotion, a bit too sales-focused, pushy and crude. The Guardian’s recent article following their FOI request on marketing spend and the size of marketing teams epitomised this perfectly; we frown upon investment in something that seems to be only acting in self-interest. But our applicants are making big investments and they need to be able to identify and choose a university that is right for them. By being distinctive and authentic about what they are, what they do and how they do it, they can help applicants to make a better choice.

  3. Because, quite frankly, the standard of marketing isn’t always as good as it might be. Some of the Clearing adverts that have been shown to me are evidence of that; they show very little understanding of who I am (I’m the parent, not the applicant), what subjects might be relevant to me (e.g. automotive engineering, when I’ve most definitely not shown an interest in that anywhere online – I guarantee), and headlines that are dull, badly written and say nothing. Unfortunately, our higher education marketeers are badly paid compared to other sectors (Marketing Week’s Career & Salary Survey 2019), we do almost little to attract the best creative and digital talent into the sector and marketing budgets are often insufficient (see point 1).

So instead of criticising the wave of Clearing adverts chasing after me and other parents this week, let’s agree that if our universities are to thrive, reach new markets, compete effectively and support applicants to make one of the most important investment decisions of their life, then we need to embrace marketing and brand as being a key part in what our universities do. At the same time, let’s recognise marketing as the profession that it is within our universities, give internal marketing the importance it deserves, make strong cases to attract the best marketing and digital talent into the sector and resource it properly so that other sectors might just - one day - look to higher education to learn about marketing best practice.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education marketing and student recruitment

2019. The year Clearing became Cool.

Aug 13, 2019

It doesn’t seem that long ago that going into Clearing was an admission of failure. Failure for the student, because they’d missed their grades. Failure for the university because it was an implicit confession of weakness.

How things have changed.

The price of growth is a change in the balance of power. Universities which had exploited the lifting of the cap, have grown enormously, and who had never previously been in Clearing found themselves forced to dip their toes in the water. Excusing themselves by claiming that ‘only a few places were available on only a handful of courses to highly qualified applicants.’

Not anymore. The Times reported at the weekend that there were 4,614 Russell Group courses available from all their members apart from the Golden Triangle plus St Andrews. With these hyper-premium exceptions, every university in the Kingdom from Anglia Ruskin to York is touting for late business. UCAS is predicting that the numbers in Clearing 2019 will rise to around 80,000, up 13,000 on last year.

The stigma that used to surround Clearing, for students as well as universities, has all but evaporated. Students have realised that supply now exceeds demand, the balance of power has changed, and that they are more in control. Months after compiling their original short lists, and then being forced to decide between firm & insure earlier this year, they’ve had more time to think, more time to review, and more time to change their minds.

Now UCAS has made their lives even easier.

The introduction of their new online self-release system allows students to discard their original choice and enter clearing. Until now, students had to ask permission to be released from their firm choice university. Now they can do it online - no permission needed.

Several thousand have already used this facility - including several hundred who had been made unconditional offers. Sites like the Student Room will undoubtedly publicise this change well over the next cycle, meaning that more and more students and universities will be able to negotiate together over actual grades rather then predicted.

Which has to be another step towards nirvana. The end of predictive grades.

David Miller is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education marketing and recruitment

Charterhouse Campaign Feasibility - a case study

Aug 02, 2019

Stream: Fundraising

Service: Campaign Feasibility Study

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Our work with this Independent day and boarding School, and their well-established (and successful) Foundation Office, focused on preparations for their first major campaign. Over the course of 12 weeks our primary objective was to assess, advise and test preparations for what would be their largest ever campaign target.

The structure of a feasibility also provided a means in which the Foundation Office could seek and secure meetings with their hard-to-reach and lapsed alumni and supporters. Another key objective of our work together was to provide the Development Director and senior staff with the foundations of a strategic plan that would enable them to improve levels of engagement with alumni and parents, and ultimately to design an inclusive campaign that appeals to multiple stakeholder groups. No small feat!


  • Reaching new and lapsed prospects
  • Testing the campaign target
  • Securing an investment of time by the Head in donor cultivation
  • Developing a strategy to improve alumni and parent engagement
  • Proving a foundation to create an informed campaign plan

Charterhouse had this to say about working with Halpin...

"The whole process was incredibly worthwhile. The feasibility study and subsequent report has provided us with a focused framework to work from, offering an additional strategic insight to our existing work. It both validated much of our existing thinking, as well as providing incisive additional commentary into the fundraising opportunities that lie ahead.

The School’s senior leadership have bought into the outcomes, which are being built into our core strategic and operational fundraising planning.

An obvious marker of the study’s success is that I really do refer to the report an awful lot! It doesn’t just sit in a cupboard collecting dust…”

- Chris Hibbs, Director of Development

The OfS challenges for University Governance

Jul 23, 2019

A blog has just been published from the Director of Competition & Registration at OfS on “Getting to grips on grade inflation”. The key statistic in this debate, is that the proportion of first-class honours degrees awarded has increased from 16% to 29% between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

In regard to the latest increase, the Director says OfS wants “to understand, for example, whether a provider has made recent changes to the way it calculates degree calculations, or whether it can point to other evidence – such as investment in staffing, teaching, services or facilities – that would credibly account for the “unexplained” increases.

The blog then interestingly goes on, “We are also interested in the steps that governing bodies have taken to ensure that academic governance arrangements are adequate and effective”.

This follows the OfS publishing in June 2019, “Effective practice advice for governing bodies”, in respect of Access & Participation noting that, “under the Higher Education & Research Act 2017, governing bodies are responsible for overseeing the development of a provider’s access and participation plan and monitoring its performance.” This states, “It is .. essential that governing bodies are familiar with the OfS approach and guidance on access and participation and that they ensure that the provider’s plan meets expectations set out in that guidance”.

The OfS has been very active on Access & Participation and it is understandable that they would wish governing bodies to exercise direction, pressure and commitment to achieve OfS aims. However, this is not the only government strategic priority. Supplementary guidance to the OfS this year from the Secretary of State on quality included eliminating grade inflation, essay mills and unconditional offers - especially conditional unconditional offers. The Strategic Priorities for the OfS for 2019/20 already included: senior pay, freedom of expression, health & wellbeing, student protection plans, consumer rights and financial sustainability.

The challenge for HE Governing Bodies of this approach is at least twofold:

  • How to stay focused on the Institutional strategy, values, culture and general oversight while giving appropriate weight to Government priorities?
  • How governing bodies adapt to the role they are now expected to fulfil in respect of academic quality issues?

The potential risks in the OfS approach are that Councils could become more managerial and that more paperwork flows to Councils which ticks the compliance boxes but does not necessarily help the debate or address the OfS needs. In these circumstances, Councils could become diverted from exercising their overall role and focus.

Actions to address the challenge from the OfS that might be considered include:

Rethinking the paper overload at Council meetings.

This is not easy as it involves a major cultural change – we like paper as incoming lay members often note. Council members need to know enough to fulfil their role but not everything. It takes effort to write papers with an eye on the Council members reading them, but the papers could be shorter, focused on the key issues/risks/decisions but supplemented by awareness briefing sessions. Perhaps a paper addressing the University’s response to key government priorities would be valuable rather than covering each separately in detail.

Getting the balance right between management and governance.

The management team needs to be of the right quality to be trusted to manage the implementation of the University Strategy, Council decisions and the detailed operations of the University. Council needs to let them do so. However, the Executive also needs to be properly accountable for their performance to Council justifying and maintaining Council’s confidence.

Considering whether there are enough external members with academic quality experience on the Council.

Making sure there is good induction, focused briefing documentation and regular briefings/discussions for all Council members on academic quality and other issues. It is helpful that there are internal members with this experience, but external challenge is helpful. Too often Council members do not feel competent or simply feel they should stay outside these issues.

Is it time to consider the role of Senate or Academic Board?

It manages the key reputational asset of the University – the ability to award degrees? How well is it performing that function and what is Council’s evidence for that opinion? Senates are a historic construct - marginally reformed - but sit oddly in governance terms as they do not usually have external members providing insight and challenge and are usually chaired by the management - Vice-Chancellor or his/her Deputy. As such, they are often more akin to managerial committees, but it could be argued that they may neither be serving the needs of the Vice-Chancellor or giving Council the assurance it needs.

Ensuring that there is good professional support for governance and Council members.

Maintaining the continuing engagement and focus of good quality Council members requires this support. It is an investment that can be repaid, as a well-performing Council can add considerable value to a University. Is it time for more Universities to consider a governance team led by a senior professional solely tasked with this role reporting directly to the Chair of Council?

The need to respond to Government priorities and the OfS is real but the risks in so doing need to be considered and mitigated.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in governance.

Can student recruitment and kindness fit together?

Jul 19, 2019

We've been talking a lot about kindness at Halpin recently. Susie has written about kindness in fundraising and Shaun's latest blog reflects on whether it is better to be kind, or right. So I've been reflecting on the role that kindness plays in student marketing and the extent to which it can still be genuine, even if the main purpose is to recruit students.

To start with, there's no doubt in my mind that university applicants need kindness. Year 13s are coping with school and exam pressure, and it's more than likely they also have a variety of relationship, financial and social pressures all showing themselves at some point too. More mature applicants will be facing all of the same pressures, but quite often with additional commitments to juggle. And everyone is facing some big decisions for which they may not feel prepared.

This means that applicants will be grateful for anything that universities can do to smooth the application process, help them to make better decisions or ease the pressure they feel. This could be reminders on deadlines, helpful hints to find funding, or exam revision tips. Equally it could be personalised responses to enquiries or a warm welcome by a student ambassador at an open day. Little things can make a big difference to applicants who can find the whole application process confusing and overwhelming.

Let’s be honest though; most of these things are ultimately done to increase student recruitment. To get noticed, to get chosen, to hit targets. Inevitably, there is a danger that being kind can tip into being a marketing gimmick if done badly.

So to make sure that being kind is done for kindness’ sake, there are three principles worth remembering:

  • Build your kindness on genuine insight and understanding. Take the time to understand your applicants before identifying what you can offer that can make life easier or better for them. Your kindness will misfire if it’s based on assumptions.
  • Have no expectation of getting something in return. If a kind act such as introducing an applicant to a current student means that the applicant decides your university isn’t right for them, then be prepared to accept that this is a good outcome for all concerned.
  • Be authentic. It’s reasonable to admit that you are being kind because your university will ultimately benefit. Applicants will see through any denial anyway and your relationship will be built on mistrust as a result.

If you have any examples of how kindness is being used in your university’s student recruitment, we’d love to hear it about it. Tweet us at @Halpin_HE and use the hashtag #teamkind.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant at Halpin – the home of experts in fundraising, marketing, strategy and governance.

Taking kindness to a national level

Jul 16, 2019

I was invited to speak this month at the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA) conference in Belfast. The topic was ‘The Future of Internationalisation: re-anchoring the UK to its new place in the world’.

I shared some research undertaken by Simon Anholt (due to be keynote speaker at the European Association for International Education conference in September 2019), who works with Heads of Government and Heads of State and has helped over fifty countries to engage more productively and imaginatively with the international community.

He developed a vast worldwide database of ordinary individuals and asked them which other countries they rate highly and why. The answer was that the kinds of country we admire, the ones with the best global reputations, are ‘good’ countries, those that contribute something to the world in which we live, making it safer or better or richer or fairer. Anholt defines ‘good’ in this context as ‘the opposite of selfish’.

But does being ‘good’ make business sense?

According to Anholt’s research, the answer is yes. The argument goes something like this:

  • Governments care hugely about their country’s reputation on the world stage.
  • Research shows that ‘good/unselfish’ behaviour on the part of a country makes people respect that country and want to do business with it.
  • So it’s possible to make a case to government that the more you act unselfishly, the more you reach out, collaborate with others and contribute to the global community, the more competitive (in the sense of economically successful) you become.

This thinking led to the creation by Anholt of an annual ‘Good Country Index’ which ranks countries for their contribution to the rest of the world according to seven dimensions including World Order, Planet and Climate, Prosperity and Equality, Health and Wellbeing.

The UK performs quite well but its position appears to be slipping.

Individual behaviour as a starting point

It struck me that this national behaviour has links to individual behaviour.

As we consider what we want people in other countries to say about the UK, it may help to think about a room full of people.

Do we want to be seen as the arrogant know-it-all who may be pretty good at some stuff but wants to be the centre of attention and have everyone gravitate towards them? Or do we want to be seen as the helpful, generous, open-minded friend who is willing to listen and learn and reach out to help resolve problems? Do we want to be inward-facing and self-centred or outward-looking and interested in others?

Re-reading Shaun Horan’s post on this site Better to be kind than to be right?, some of the characteristics of kindness that he highlights are highly relevant. The concepts that resonate most are that ‘you can’t bring people with you if you are only focused on yourself’, you have to give up the need to ‘win’, and ‘if we could all get out of our own way, listen a bit more and speak a bit less, we could live in a better and richer place’.

From individual to institution

In a recent LinkedIn post, inspired by the work of Carnegie UK on ‘quantifying kindness, public engagement and place’, Susie Hills asked: ‘What would a kind university look like? How would its staff and students behave?’.

Well, I framed it in different terms in my conference presentation, but here are some examples of ‘good global citizenship’ which also have a seam of kindness (in the sense of considering others’ needs) running through them.

The University of Manchester is tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (on multiple levels, locally and internationally) as part of its core institutional priority of social responsibility.

The Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust’s joint PhD programme (stemming from a long-standing partnership between University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the University of Liverpool and the Wellcome Trust) helps to address health challenges relevant to Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an example of a type of Transnational Education (TNE) that builds capacity in the host country and extends opportunities to those who are not in a position to pursue an extended period of study in the UK, using TNE as a tool for widening global access.

De Montfort University’s Square Mile India volunteering programme helps transform the lives of some of the poorest communities in Gujarat. At the same time, it provides a transformative experience for UK students, tapping into the growing desire among young people in the UK to make a social contribution.

In 2017 the University of Central Lancashire hosted medical students from the American University of the Caribbean when their facilities were destroyed by Hurricane Irma. The relationship between the two institutions has gone from strength to strength and their latest collaboration is a joint medical programme to help bring more doctors to countries and communities in need.

At Aston University, a project run by a Syrian academic has helped nearly fifty refugees from his home country to become entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, undergraduate languages students from universities in Sheffield and Cardiff have mentored pre-GCSE pupils. Among participating schools in Sheffield, this has helped boost GCSE languages entries by 43% (following years of decline). In so doing, it’s helping to open the eyes of students from poorer backgrounds to the opportunities arising from intercultural engagement.

From institution back to nation

It is not difficult to find examples of UK HEIs using their international expertise to support and engage with local and global communities (sometimes both at the same time). Some individual institutions are starting to give these activities prominence in order to convey messages about their institutional ethos and priorities.

However, these great stories are not currently being developed into a wider sector narrative. If, as a sector, we all got behind a national campaign to highlight our institutions’ global social responsibility, could we collectively help to re-position UK HE – and by extension the UK – as an actor which strives to address global issues and prepare the next generation of leaders to contribute positively to the wider world?

The #WeAreInternational campaign did a phenomenal job in reassuring prospective international students at a time when other national rhetoric made them feel unwelcome. Could we adopt a similar approach to help dispel any perception among overseas partners and stakeholders that the UK is retreating into self-centred insularity?

How about striving to become a sector characterised by kindness: one that is described by those in other countries not just as a world-class system, but as a world-class collaborator and friend?

Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin. You can find a blog adapted from her BUILA presentation on her website.

Will Spinks joins Halpin’s Consulting Fellows

Jul 11, 2019

Halpin is pleased to announce the addition of Will Spinks to its team of Consulting Fellows.

A senior-level leader in higher education, Will joined the University of Manchester as Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer in June 2011. After retiring from his full-time post in September 2017, he was appointed as an Associate Vice President acting as an advisor to the Senior Leadership Team.

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Will Spinks

Prior to joining Manchester, Will was the first Chief Operating Officer of Loughborough University. Here he was responsible for all the service functions and the commercial activities of the University. In addition, he chaired and served on the Board of wholly owned subsidiary companies and the Manufacturing Technology Centre.

Will said, "I am delighted to be joining the team of highly experienced Consulting Fellows at Halpin and look forward to working with colleagues in the sector to help them meet the challenges they face."

Joint CEO Susie Hills commented, “Attracting someone of Will’s calibre is exciting news for Halpin. Will’s addition to our team of Fellows will bring great benefit to our clients, and we are looking forward to working with him.”

Read Will’s full biography here.

Campaign counting: smoke and mirrors?

Jul 04, 2019

I once took part in a very interesting survey of what was being counted in the income for University Campaigns. About 13 different organisations took part. How many ways of counting campaign income do you think we came back with.


But does this mean that Campaign counting has no credibility, and is, as a number of people outside of the fundraising team may feel, just window-dressing?

Absolutely not.

No one institution counts in the same way, because no two institutions are exactly the same. A campaign should be about what you value, what behaviour you are trying to encourage, what areas you want to expand, what areas you want to encourage to work together.

Whilst it is sometimes a surprise to people outside of fundraising teams that not all of the money in Campaign is philanthropic income, all of those thirteen ways of counting were absolutely credible, based on the above factors. So what are the things you need to consider?

How should you count in Campaign?

We would suggest that a campaign counting policy should consider the following principles. The policy should:

  • Be objective, credible and transparent
  • Support the organisation’s strategy
  • Enable robust reporting and benchmarking (both internal and external)
  • Celebrate philanthropy
  • Create leverage opportunities
  • Be approved and supported by leadership and widely understood
  • Encourage the campaign to be widely owned throughout the organisation
  • Celebrate non-£ contributions
  • Demonstrate impact

That’s quite a list, but the first line of it is undoubtedly the most important. If you don’t take the time to explain internally what you count, why and how, you won’t convince the outside world. Your own organisation has to understand what you are doing and why, and they have to believe in it.

What income might you include?

When we work with clients, we take them through a practical list of all areas that have been included in campaigns across the sector. No institution everything – again it is about getting something that works for you. The following is an extract from the full list that we use, so consider your drivers, and consider what you might include:


  • Major gifts
  • Leadership
  • Annual fund
  • Regular gifts
  • Staff gifts
  • Cash gifts from corporates
  • International government monies (for campaign projects)
  • Government departments, e.g. Arts Council, DIFD (for campaign projects)
  • Volunteer hours by alumni
  • Volunteer hours by students
  • Pro-bono support offered via projects

Impact/participation measures

  • Number of students benefiting
  • Research impact measures
  • Number of scholarships given
  • % alumni giving
  • % staff giving
  • % trustees/governors giving
  • Number legacy pledges

This list is of course focused mainly on Universities – the approach for Schools and Charities is easier in the sense that the majority of the money will be philanthropic, and the opportunity to include wider sources of income is harder. However, for medical research charities and those with wider income sources, it is again worth considering the key drivers – what kind of institutional behaviour do you want to encourage by undertaking a campaign?


So, once you have your Campaign counting method clear, you have communicated it widely and everyone is on board, you have the investment needed, and you have clear projects and priorities, and a clear strategy, you are good to go. It’s time to take the campaign out of the institution and to see what donors and prospective donors make of it.

If you want help with deciding what you should count, putting together the strategy, and engaging external donors, we are the experts in all of those areas. We have run campaigns in house, and have advised on countless others. We have a very strong record of accurately predicting campaign potential, and we would love to help you achieve yours.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin - the home of experts in higher education fundraising

Are fundraising researchers our next sector leaders?

Jul 02, 2019

Prospect Research is now one of the fastest growing professions in fundraising. It grew from traditional desk based research, such as profiling potential donors and their gift potential, to prospect management, the process of monitoring a fundraising pipeline, and now sophisticated data analytics and due diligence.

The profession came under public scrutiny in 2016 when the ICO fined a number of big named charities for conducting ‘wealth screenings’ without being transparent enough. This tackle was played out under the shadow of GDPR’s arrival, which served to harden the ICOs stance - appearing at one point that prospect research might be snuffed out of existence forever!

This forced the sector as a whole to reflect deeply on the value that prospect research brings. In 2017 we saw a flurry of reactionary studies commissioned by the Institute of Fundraising that aimed to rescue prospect research from the ICOs unwittingly lethal misconceptions. Thankfully the mission was successful, and the necessity and legality of research practices was publically confirmed.

A welcome by-product of this exchange was that it served to highlight anew the value research professionals themselves bring to charities. Amanda Bringans, Director of Fundraising at The British Heart Foundation, during a Plenary at the Researchers in Fundraising Conference 2017, shared how GDPR and the ICOs dealings brought to her attention the researchers in her organisation like never before as, ‘unsung heroes’.

Yet despite the recent attention, it is demonstrably true that researchers do not share the limelight that other fundraising professionals do. Research based talks rarely if ever appear at the top fundraising conferences such as CASE Europe or IOF’s Fundraising Convention. Indeed, at IOF’s Fundraising Convention 2018, a three-day conference positioned to cover all aspects of fundraising, only 1 session related to the research sector, out of 90! Further, the National Fundraising Awards have no award related to the research profession but there are for Individual Giving, Events, Digital, Legacy, Donor Experience and more. Of course, there are specialist conferences that research professionals can frequent, yet there are for all of the above too.

Not only do researchers miss out on the limelight in this way but more intriguingly research is historically not a career path that leads to becoming a Head of or Director of Fundraising. Why? Is it because the profession is seen as young and has not yet asserted itself fully? Is it because researchers do not like to be ‘front and centre’? Or is it because researchers are not actually considered fundraisers? If you were to ask a researcher why, the latter is the likely answer they will give - a frequent rejoinder they incredulously recount.

The idea of researchers becoming Directors of Fundraising may raise all kinds of interesting questions about fundraising leadership. Should you have made any kind of funding ask to be a Head or Director of Fundraising? Can one lead a ‘face-to-face’ fundraising team if their predominant background is desk based? Can one know fundraising simply through monitoring it? Put simply, can researchers make good fundraising leaders and are we missing a trick by not readily considering them?

To answer this question we might first allow ourselves to agree on three basic qualities of a fundraising leader ought, at the very least, to embody; 1), sound interpersonal skills, 2), good decision-making and 3), a comprehensive understanding of fundraising.

When considering the first, Chris Carnie, one of the original prospect researchers in the UK who founded Researchers in Fundraising SIG over 25 years ago, and Founding Director of Factary, shared, ‘With permission to generalise, there is this stereotype of the researcher being a recluse, with thick glasses and a sharpened pencil.’ The notion here was that researchers are not traditionally considered to represent the interpersonal skills required for leadership, and this can hold back their professional growth. Chris goes on, ‘However, there is no evidence for this. In fact researchers have to be incredibly socially adept. Part of their role is to monitor pipelines and ‘sell’ prospects to fundraising teams, they have to do an awful lot of negotiating and pitching.’

In terms of the second, good decision-making, researchers are trained in data-led decision making - to prioritise information over intuition. Presumably, this can’t be a bad thing. When one looks at specific examples of how data-led strategies have benefited fundraising performance one repeatedly encounters some impressive stats. For example, The University of Bristol’s regular giving program jumped from £96,000 to £380,000 in one year when a data analytics program began for the first time. The income went on to go up steadily year after year through repeated data analysis until it now brings in circa £1m annually (University of Bristol, Presentation on Analytics, CASE Europe, Brussels, 2016). One would assume therefore that a researcher in a leadership position is able to utilize their training in this area, seeking and making sound decisions upon the information available.

Lastly, a comprehensive understanding of fundraising, may unexpectedly be the researchers strongest USP. Under inspection, the researchers role is to build, feed and closely monitor fundraising pipelines - from Trust & Foundations, regular giving, major giving, legacy and more. Within this, they report on & design KPI’s whilst researching individual & organisational philanthropic inclinations in depth. They even monitor individual fundraiser portfolios and encounter again and again which ask strategies are working and which are not. They put together sophisticated analytics that predict who will give, and map professional networks across vast seas of prospects. They also know where to find critical information, from the spooky to the most technical. The researcher role therefore, affords a unique and in-depth overview of fundraising like no other role in the sector! Contrast this experience with a fundraiser who may have worked their way up to Director level via one or two channels of fundraising alone, such as corporate or major giving. Who might be better prepared to now guide and manage all the other different channels newly reporting into them?

The burning criticism, which may be levied against the ‘researcher-leader’, is obvious but potent - that one cannot learn nor replace the intuition learned over years of actual face-to-face fundraising. For example, it is easy to understand how a successful major gift fundraiser may build an intuitive knowledge of who is ready to give and who is not. They may be able to read the subtle cues of a social occasion or the odd turn of phrase in an email that only their years of on-the-ground experience can provide. If that intuition were lost to senior management, it may mean that frontline fundraisers will not receive the one on one guidance they need from their leader to excel.

Whatever we think about the power of intuition in fundraising leadership, the point here is that the leader ought to be able to give sound one-to-one advice and support. Interestingly, Josh Birkholz, a world leading fundraising analyst at BWF may have something to add here. He recently studied masses of data on successful fundraisers to see what common features they shared. He found that,

‘The top 20% of producers [frontline fundraisers] worked with prospect development [researchers] twice as often as all other officers.’ - ‘Redefining Fundraising Metrics’, Researchers in Fundraising Conference 2017

Whatever council or support these researchers were providing it was clearly benefiting the fundraisers.

To summarise, this exploration was not to do down the traditional routes to leadership positions but to provoke the idea that researchers ought to be more readily considered as viable candidates too. Perhaps it’s time to look past the need of leadership candidates to have ‘direct experience’ of bringing in substantial funds themselves but to look at their overall ‘handle’ on the ‘fundraising machine’. Given the incredible increase in fundraising success provided by researchers so far, the sector could be missing a trick by not doing so. Whatever our true feeling about this, a gentle shift is occurring as there exists a very small minority of institutions ready to embrace researchers as their next leaders. The real test will be seeing how this new breed of leaders perform!

Jason Briggs is Consulting Fellow for Halpin - management consultants for higher education fundraising, governance, strategy and marketing.

This article was first published in Civil Society in a magazine circulated to all Institute of Fundraising members.