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Why governance reviews should include Senate

Sep 20, 2021

Over the years, as Secretary to and a member of three Senates of chartered universities, I have spent many happy hours I will never get back dodging grenades thrown from the back benches to the front on every topic under the sun. Senates have seemed increasingly anachronous and ponderous in a rapidly changing environment requiring nimbleness and fleetness of foot. With 50 or more members and meeting termly they might sting like a bee but rarely float like a butterfly.

The 60 or so universities in the UK incorporated by Royal Charter all have Senates constitutionally charged with being the academic authority of the university and the keeper of its awards. They are academic bodies with a majority of elected academic members, but also comprising academic managers such as heads of department and deans and members of the senior leadership team.

Senates have significant academic membership as well as professional services staff who support the academic endeavour. Senate is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor. As well as being the academic authority, Senates usually have the power to discuss any matter affecting the university and pass their views on to the governing Council. Typically Senate will elect around three members to the Council.

Although Council is the supreme governing body in a chartered university, traditionally Councils have ceded the academic ground to Senate. This is changing, however, for a number of reasons.

Independent members of Council increasingly wish to probe and challenge the core business of a university (education and research) rather than simply dealing with enabling strategies such as finance, people and infrastructure. They have the tools to do so with the growth of rankings, the National Student Survey and graduate destinations data. Crucially, the advent of the Office for Students in England has placed a duty on Councils rather than Senates to assure the OfS of the quality and standards of awards and the quality of the student experience. In the UK all but a handful of chartered universities are in the English sector.

The coming of the OfS presents a challenge but also an opportunity for Senates. Rather than increasingly being thought of as a dignified part of the constitution to be got through in one piece by the executive and as a refuge for heads of department to keep their heads down and catch up with emails, Senates have the opportunity to be at the heart of academic quality and standards and the student experience i.e. exactly what they should be.

In order to do so, however, Senates need to stop being precious about the authority of Council. The three legs of the governance stool, Senate, Council and the Vice-Chancellor have to accept, respect and understand their mutual roles and responsibilities ie Senate as the academic authority, Council as the governing body superior to Senate and the VC as chief executive, accountable to Council and OfS as the accounting officer and to Senate as chair. It is for good reason in charters that the VC is described as the “chief academic and administrative officer”.

In assuring the OfS Council has itself to seek assurance. It cannot simply accept the assurance of Senate. It needs to see the workings out. By way of analogy, Council would not sign off the financial statements simply on the say-so of the chief financial officer. It seeks advice from external auditors, finance committee and audit committee before authorising the signing of the statements.

Similarly, some universities are now establishing academic assurance committees of Council, implying that they cannot get assurance from Senate.

In my view, it is preferable for Councils to be able to take assurance from Senate but, in order to do so, Senates must be organised to be capable of providing such assurance. This requires a highly professional education/quality/standards sub-committee of Senate which produces the detailed analysis to provide assurance.

While this should be considered, tested and challenged by Senate, it should not be second-guessed and Senate should not substitute its own judgment for that of a careful, comprehensive professional process of the quality that can provide assurance to Council and OfS.

Rather than being seen as anachronistic bodies to be worked around, this key role of academic assurance has the potential to reinvigorate Senates and re-engage senators to be what their founders intended, the academic heart of the university. Under this model Senate becomes an important part of the effectiveness of corporate governance. The Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Guide recommends a triennial robust review of governance effectiveness with independent advice by each university. There is an increasing tendency for chartered universities to include senate as well as council in the review. This is to be welcomed since an effective senate, capable of assuring council on quality, standards and the student experience is an integral part of the governance framework of a chartered university.

David Allen is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance.

Halpin welcomes Head of Client Services, Rachael Magee

Aug 12, 2021

Halpin is delighted to announce a key appointment in its growth strategy as it welcomes Rachael Magee as Head of Client Services.

Rachael joins the higher education management consultancy in September 2021, taking up this newly created role heading up Halpin’s client-facing delivery and services function. She’ll be managing a large team of senior-level Consulting Fellows, ensuring that quality and consistency lies at the heart of every project.

Rachael will lead Halpin’s client-facing delivery and services from project kick-off through to completion and beyond, ensuring all work is carried out to the highest standards.

An established professional with demonstrated results in the higher education sector, she has perspective of all sides of client delivery, previously being both a project manager and consultant.

She has experience in creating, developing and nurturing teams and is an excellent relationship builder. She has project managed a variety of projects including recruitment, feasibility studies, engagement and benchmarking surveys, building relationships with higher education leaders, governors and trustees.

She understands the importance of meeting agreed targets and the value of delivering on time and within budget for her clients, which have included the University of Cambridge, the University of Kent and the University for the Creative Arts.

Most recently Rachael was Director of Development and Alumni Relations at Exeter School, creating their first development strategy, establishing KPIs across fundraising and alumni relations, and launching their first fundraising campaign.

Joint CEO Susie Hills says, “Rachael’s appointment marks our commitment to our clients as we grow. Her role will ensure that we continue to go the extra mile for our clients, that each project is delivered to the very highest standards and that we play our part in supporting the higher education sector through challenging times. We are delighted to welcome her to the team.”

Rachael comments, “I am inspired by the quality and insight within Halpin's work for their higher education clients. I look forward to being a part of Halpin, using my skills to continue excellent service for clients and making a difference with the work we deliver.”

Halpin welcomes latest Consultant, Osaro Otobo

Aug 11, 2021

As part of its major growth strategy, Halpin welcomes Osaro Otobo as Consultant specialising in diversity and inclusion, and in democracy and governance.

Osaro has been a Consulting Fellow for Halpin for over a year, and is already a familiar name to many of Halpin’s clients. She has worked on projects with University of Sunderland, University of Manchester, University of Liverpool and University of Sussex. She’s currently working with Halpin clients such as Unite Students, University of Exeter and Durham University.

Last year, she researched and authored Halpin’s research project ‘UK Universities’ Response to Black Lives Matter’ and chaired a follow-up webinar.

Osaro is also Deputy Chair of British Youth Council, working alongside trustees and staff to help young people make social and political change. She is currently a member of the advisory board for The Association of Students’ Union Professionals.

From lived experiences, she created the Make Diversity Count campaign which is calling for all UK organisations to have transparent and effective anti-discrimination polices and procedures for long-term change.

While studying at the University of Hull for her undergraduate and masters degrees, she was elected for 3 successive years to work in the best interest of students at Hull; she was a postgraduate student trustee and a two-term President at Hull University Students’ Union (HUSU). She was their first ever Black female president and the first Black two-term president at HUSU.

Joint CEO Susie Hills says, “Over the past year Osaro has contributed to a wide variety of projects for Halpin. She has demonstrated insight and commitment to the sector. We are delighted to welcome her to the team full time, and know she will excel in the role.”

Osaro comments, “I’ve really enjoyed my work as a Consulting Fellow for Halpin over the past year or so. I’m excited to join the team full time from September and start this new part of my journey working in Higher Education."

Osaro joins the Halpin team from September 2021.

Governance Under Pressure: Governance Lessons from the Corporate Sector

Aug 04, 2021

Susie had a chat with Consulting Fellow Hanif Barma on lessons to take from governance in the corporate sector. Read their discussion here.

Susie: You have been working with Halpin on higher education governance projects for over three years now. What particular expertise do you bring to your work?

Hanif: I’ve been advising organisations in governance for over fifteen years now, and my work is cross sector. Although much of my work is with corporates, undertaking board reviews, I’ve now worked with Halpin on over half a dozen higher education reviews. I’ve also worked with charities, private companies and regulators. This means I’ve been fortunate to see how governance can work (and sometime shouldn’t) in different sectors and can my help clients learn from further afield than their own sectors.

Susie: What impresses you most about governance in universities?

Hanif: I’ve always believed in education as an enabler of personal development, progression and growth so I’ve particularly enjoyed my governance work in higher education. In the sector, all my clients have had a clear understanding of why governance is important to them, so that’s always a good starting point.

It’s only in the last few years, largely as a result of enhanced reporting requirements, that the corporate sector has really embraced a wider stakeholder perspective, beyond that of shareholders, in their decision making. I’ve been impressed with the way higher education boards take into account the interests of a wide range of their stakeholders, and this has been particularly evident when focusing on the wellbeing of students and staff during the pandemic.

Susie: Many of our clients want to see what practice can be adopted from the corporate sector. What have been the key developments in corporate governance which HE can learn from?

Hanif: In addition to now giving more focus to the wider range of their stakeholders, there are a number of key areas that corporate boards are now giving more focus to. Many of these are people related and these include culture, diversity and inclusion, as well as succession. Sustainability and ESG (environment, social and governance) is another big area of focus.

Culture is one particularly interesting area as boards begin to recognise the alignment of corporate purpose, strategy and culture. This means they appreciate the need to ensure their organisations have the ‘right’ culture to deliver on their corporate objectives. So, culture is increasingly a topic on board agendas and boards are now looking to get assurance on their organisation’s culture.

Susie: Are there any lessons for universities from recent corporate governance failures?

Hanif: Corporate governance failures have arisen for a range of reasons. Many failures have been strategic and have highlighted the need for boards to rise above the detail of routine agendas packed with operational detail with time devoted to box ticking compliance matters. Higher education board agendas can still very operational so spending time on longer-term thinking would, in many cases, be valuable. Ensuring financial viability and sustainability similarly needs to be a focus.

Getting board composition right is also vital. Boards members need to bring in the right skills and experience. Their ability to challenge constructively and support the business is also key. This means board members need sufficient understanding of the business, and engagement with it, so high-quality induction and ongoing board development is essential. With large boards typical in higher education, it can be easy to be a passenger. Universities should regularly ask themselves whether they are getting what they need from each of their governors and whether they are all contributing sufficiently. The right board behaviours are crucial.

Susie: And turning the tables, do you think there are lessons for companies in the way in which universities approach their governance?

Hanif: I earlier mentioned that higher education boards typically give focus to the wider range of their stakeholders. With stakeholder engagement recently getting increasing attention in the corporate sector, this could be an area where corporates could learn from higher education governance. Additionally, I’ve found higher education boards can be more flexible in their choice of committee structure, and there are times that corporate boards could usefully think beyond the well-established audit, remuneration and nomination committees.

Susie: Finally, one of your particular areas of expertise is risk. Have you any observations on how universities approach risk?

Hanif: The higher education clients I have worked with have generally given reasonable focus to risk, but they can give too much focus to the mechanics of risk registers. I’ve seen situations where the board’s discussion has focused on risk scores and ratings, when they would have been better served by giving more time to discussing principal risks and the responses required.

A few other areas are worth remembering. Boards should ensure that the risks identified are clearly aligned with the objectives and strategy. They should give sufficient focus to emerging risks as well as to low probability/high impact risks. The board should also make sure it has established a suitable programme of assurance that addresses the principal risks faced. Finally, boards should not forget that risks and uncertainty also present opportunities – so they should not just view risk as something to be avoided.

Hanif Barma is a Consulting Fellow at Halpin Partnership and founder of Board Alchemy.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Are big gifts getting riskier?

Jul 15, 2021

I must have read the Sunday Times Rich List every year for the past 15-20 years, and this year I noticed something quite different. The editorial tone has changed. The opening paragraph tells of an “unsettling” wealth boom for the super-rich: “Over the past year, tens of thousands of us have buried loved ones, and millions of us have feared for our livelihoods. But at the very same time, more people have become billionaires than at any point in British history.”

The Sunday Times reports that there are a record number of billionaires - the biggest jump in the 33 years it has been tracking the wealthiest in our country. They question both the ethics and the sustainability and reality of this wealth ‘boom’:“It is not just the timing of this gilded epoch for the super-rich that feels disturbing. This is also a boom that often appears detached from the laws of economic gravity. How can businesses set up less than two years ago, that have never turned a profit, be worth more than $1bn?”.

This leads me to wonder, is big gift fundraising getting riskier?

Clearly, there is an opportunity to seek big gifts from the names on the pages of the Rich List, and many institutions have done so. For example, Sheffield University secured the largest gift in its history from Andrew Law, an alumnus who appears at number 10 on the Sunday Times Giving List. 182 Rich Listers have given £1m plus - more than ever before - and the total given by Rich Listers is up 34% to £4.3bn. For those institutions with a connection to one of the names on the list, careful consideration should be being given as to how to build that relationship and seek a big gift.

However as you plan your approach you should also should be carefully considering the financial and reputational risks of big gifts – both the ones you have already received, as well as the ones you may ask for.

Never before has there been the same scrutiny in terms of the ethics of donors. Whether it’s the ethical track record of the company/ies from which they get their wealth (think Sackler family) or their track record in paying (or not paying) their taxes, you can be sure that if you don’t do your due diligence and research fully the sources of their wealth, someone else will do it for you.

Being clear as to what types of money your institution will and will not accept is a governance decision that must be explored at board level. As a fundraising leader it is vital that you know whether your leadership are comfortable taking different types of money and have a clear stance on the obvious areas of risk. Are you clear as to whether it it ok to accept money from mining companies, tobacco companies, alcohol makers, gambling companies? Does the good the money do ‘wash it clean’, or is the ethical cost too high for your institution?

And as all fundraising leaders know, the ethical due diligence doesn’t stop when you accept the gift - it must continue thereafter and you will need the resources to regularly review and risk assess your donor list. The reputation of your donor may change and you may need to reconsider their name on your building (or anything else). You need to know that there is a process in place to regularly review and bring issues of concern to the Board.

And it’s not just the ethical and reputational risks that come with big gifts from the super-rich - there are financial risks too. Most multimillion-pound gifts are not given in total upfront. Most are phased payments, sometimes over several years. It's important that you consider the sustainability of the donor's wealth. What if their particular bubble bursts and they do not fulfil their pledged payments?

Now is the time for fundraising leaders to revisit their gift acceptance policy and due diligence process and to ensure that the Board has had appropriate oversight and ownership of it. Halpin can provide expert services to review policies, assess risks and facilitate Board discussions. We can also provide research services if your team does not have in-house capacity.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education governance, fundraising and strategy.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Who is the Case for Support for?

Jul 15, 2021

Who is the Case for Support really for? It’s not your donors….

The putting together of Cases for Support has long been seen as an essential piece of work for the Development Office. And it’s always painful in a University setting in particular – how do you reduce so many opportunities and possibilities down to a few things that the University really says it wants to do? How do you keep parts of the University on Board that don’t feature in the Case?

So who is the Case really for?

Well, for many Campaigns, the biggest gifts that they receive throughout the Campaign are very often for things that weren’t in the Case at all. They are given for projects that evolve from discussions with donors, and by examining where those motivations align with what the University wants to do in the longer term. The really exciting ones are where a gift allows for a possibility that wasn’t even imagined before the conversation began.

So if that is true, and feedback from Development Offices suggests that is common in their own fundraising, and particularly in Campaigns, then why do we spend so long constructing them? I think there are two key things that a Case can achieve.

Firstly, it is really an internal document. It is about the Development office working with the University to be clear on what the University really wants to do. What areas does it want to prioritise yes – but more importantly how does it want to talk about itself, its history and its ambitions? And does it really believe in this Campaign thing – is the leadership really willing to work with Development and the rest of the University to undertake a really comprehensive push to move Development up to new levels? It allows Development to undertake crucial internal PR on what fundraising and stakeholder engagement really is, and that is its key function in my view.

A strong Case also gives everyone internally, from your fundraisers right through to your executive team, a script from which to work. Over time it will help them become fluent in the 'language' of the campaign - from the elevator pitch right down to the detail around projects.

Secondly, it’s a conversation starter with donors. It shows donors that the University has thought about its priorities and what it wants to do, and it signals ambition. That is often where it ends – that initial conversation that sparks a line of enquiry with a donor that may (and often does) shoot down a completely different pathway. In other words, when your plan meets reality, reality often looks completely different.

The thing it really should never be used for, is an excuse not to go out and start speaking to donors. In a University setting, it doesn’t matter if the University is not yet clear on its case for support. You can go out and speak to donors and listen, listen, listen for most of the conversation – what motivates them, what else do they give to, what priority to they give to your institution? Far too often fundraisers feel that they can’t have this conversation until they are clear on what the Case is. If the Case is often irrelevant other than a place to kick off a conversation, then why wait?

So, if you are holding up your fundraising because the Case isn’t clear, you are holding your institution (and yourself) back. I’m not suggesting “going rogue” with this by the way – it is a vital part of the role to align what the donor is interested in with what the University genuinely wants to do. If those things don’t align it will end in very large tears.

Construct a Case for Support to allow Development to speak to the University (or any other institution), and get clarity on what the Leadership really wants you to do. But be clear with them that the real gifts won’t look like what you’ve just put down on paper.

And that is the real beauty and opportunity of fundraising for HE. You never know where any single conversation will go. What an exciting way to start every interaction.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education fundraising.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Small Teams Q&A

Jul 15, 2021

Joint CEO Susie Hills recently had a chat with Consulting Fellow Penny Hubbard about the challenges of fundraising with a small team. Here's how their conversation went:

Susie: The last 12 months have created tremendous pressures for fundraising teams. Many have seen budgets cut or frozen, staff furloughed and, of course, all the challenges of working from home and juggling caring that we have all faced. What do you think its harder for small teams to respond to these challenges?

Penny: Whilst it is entirely understandable that the immediate reaction of some organisations was to cut costs, those which chose to furlough staff or make staff redundant from small teams created huge pressure on those remaining in post. It is well established that it is much harder to recover pre-crisis levels of fundraising where there has been a drop or cessation of activity in times of crisis.

If your organisation reduced contact with your donors you can be reasonably sure that many other charities, particularly those addressing specific pandemic issues, will have been approaching them for support. Experienced fundraisers know the importance of maintaining contact, of ensuring the mission of your organisation is at the forefront of the minds of donors in times of crisis. It was critical that financial supporters were kept up to date with how the institution they support was coping with the pandemic and ensuring long term sustainability as well as continuing its important work and impact. As a result the fundraisers who remained in post within small teams found themselves trying to maintain a reasonable level of activity without, in many cases, the right levels of staff.

I have seen numerous Development Directors having to turn their hand not only to continuing to maintain good communications and relations with existing donors, but to running online events, writing communications as well as spending a great deal more management time on supporting their team members who might have been working remotely. I am seeing real signs of burnout amongst some senior colleagues who have worked harder than ever during the pandemic with no real break.

Susie: Are there any advantages to being a small team during challenging times?

Penny: Members of smaller teams are often more used to having to pivot and help out with activities which are not the prime responsibility under their job specification. This established flexibility and willingness to support colleagues has proved to be an advantage in times of fast change and transition. I have also seen very strong support between team members as a result of the fact they already all know each other very well and do not sit in silos or stand on ceremony. Where there has been pressure on team members through having to home school or struggle to cope with new technology and intermittent broadband, the strong relationships already formed as a result of having been part of a small flexible team have made a big difference.

Susie: How can small teams build their resilience and boost their energy?

Penny: Good leadership is critical in times of crisis. Managers who have held regular (weekly) team meetings online backed up by one-to-one sessions have helped support team members and strengthened their resilience. Kindness and empathy have proved critical qualities and managers who have taken the time to actively listen to their staff have reaped the dividends.

Treating the team members in a holistic way – regarding them as entire people and recognising the challenges they have faced has resulted in increased loyalty and commitment. Sharing successes with all of the team has been even more crucial than it is normally as a result of everyone working remotely, feeling more isolated sitting in their homes. Celebration of achievements – whether big or small – builds energy and good managers have given credit to each and every contribution that has played a part. Making sure that all the staff keep the mission of the organisation in the forefront of their minds helps maintain their positivity and resilience: for example, sharing personal stories of students who were helped at a desperate moment when they didn’t have a lap top yet were sent home for the rest of term or the international graduates wo found the cost of flights home had shot through the roof created a feel good factor and a sense of achievement and positivity.

It has been important to have some fun too – in the first lockdown I saw regular informal social events (such as ‘bring a cup of coffee and have a fifteen minute social chat’) work very well – by replacing the conversation around the water-cooler.

Susie: Prioritising must be particularly important for small teams. What do you think small teams should focus on over the next 12 months as, hopefully, we see some return to “normal”?

Penny: I would first focus on ensuring that existing donor relations are strengthened and would conduct a review to pick up any who have ‘lapsed’, perhaps because the team had not been able to keep as connected as you would like, due to furlough or other cuts. These donors should be contacted as soon as possible to start to re-build relations. Communicating how the institution has adapted during the pandemic will be important in conveying the message that the organisation is resilient and able to continue its great work, even during something as transformational as a global pandemic. Donors want to be reassured that the mission will continue and to be shown how their personal gift can and has made a difference in challenging times. The old advice of ‘never talk to strangers’ will be particularly pertinent to re-building a strong foundation for your organisation as you go forward and I would focus first on that area, whilst starting to build back capacity for engaging new donors through great stories and case studies. Once the existing relations are cemented and strong communications on what the organisation has achieved during the pandemic established, then attention can be turned by Major Gift Officers and Development Directors to new support.

Susie: Any tips you would offer to leaders of small teams?

Penny: Visible leadership of the organisation is key in establishing the trust and belief which are critical factors for good fundraising. I would advise leaders of small fundraising teams to enlist the help of the leaders of their organisation to get out strong messaging from the very top as you start to rebuild and/or expand. Looking at how to run your small team there is a great deal of discussion in the media about how working practices may change but I do not think we are yet at a position where we can be certain on how flexible people will want to be going forward. In this period of crisis we have all worked from home and for many this has shown a glimpse of longer term flexibility that may be attractive. In many cases working remotely has improved productivity – but equally in some cases it has not. Whilst good leaders have ensured team members each have a voice at online meetings (I am a great fan of Nancy Kline and her approach to allowing everyone round the table to speak) it has been harder to ensure this happens with the rather more stilted structure of online meetings compared to having team meetings in person.

With a small team, the face to face relations and ‘water cooler’ talk is particularly important to establishing strong working relations and commitment both to each other and to the mission of the organisation. Seeing students physically present in their higher educational institution is part of the magic that makes working in fundraising for higher education so motivating. Whilst leaders of small teams need to show empathy and understanding to their staff in yet a new period of transition as we move back to a ‘new normal’ they also need to encourage a return to the office for at least some of the working week to help strengthen the team bond.

Penny Hubbard is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education fundraising. If you'd like to discuss your particular fundraising challenges with us, get in touch

Governance Under Pressure: Strategic Plans

Jul 13, 2021

Halpin Consulting Fellow Ewart Wooldridge CBE was the founding Chief Executive from 2003 to 2013 of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, set up to play a key role in developing UK and international HE leaders and their institutions. He has a well-established portfolio of consultancy, advisory and governance roles in the HE sector. He has strong experience in governance development, having devised the Leadership Foundation Governor Development Programme jointly with the CUC, and designed and run the highly successful VC/Chair retreats for the LF. He has been Deputy Chair of Council at the Institute of Education, London, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and is now on the Council of St Georges University of London and Chair of their Remuneration Committee.

Ewart spoke to Joint CEO Susie Hills to discuss how boards should approach university strategy, post-pandemic.

Susie: Ewart, you undertook research on Covid-19 and leadership in higher education. How do you think Covid-19 will change universities’ strategic plans?

Ewart: Every university will have to rethink or amend their strategic plans following the Covid experience. How the student experience is delivered will change fundamentally. There will be a major shift in the balance between online and face-to-face learning. The balance for staff between working on campus and at home will have to be kept under review, but it will certainly not go back to pre-Covid arrangements. Campuses will be used in different ways. And lurking behind all of this is the issue of value for money. Universities have got to demonstrate that the £9,500 a year deal for the student experience still delivers, but in a different way. Students have got to be able to see how that deal - or psychological contract - still holds good, and that means tangible strategic changes.

How can Boards and Executive teams best work together to develop strategic plans?

They have to start by engaging differently with staff and students. They have to create a strategy in which staff and students recognise their impact and can influence straight away. The strategy should start with a clear vision and set of values that they can identify with. It should be distinctive and innovative, and not shy away from the difficult choices that may have to be made.

This may mean opening up more the relationship between the Board and the staff and students, and the Board and the Executive. Particularly in the next year or so, Boards will need to try and offload some of their assurance and monitoring responsibilities onto Committees, so that they can focus on the core strategic dialogue. The door into the Boardroom needs to be opened more widely so that more staff and students actually understand what goes on behind it. Very few really understand it at present.

Do you think strategic planning should be externally facilitated? Why? What are the pros and cons of it?

Yes, I do, but not to the point that the Board and Executive lose ownership of it.

At the beginning of the process, an initial objective assessment with the help of a skilful facilitator is hugely beneficial. It will bring a freshness of perspective to those whose thinking may be trapped in outdated places. They will be challenged to envisage many different scenarios. Once that process has been completed, many institutions should simply revert to handling it themselves. Others may find it helpful to take back their partly formed strategy to the same facilitator a second time to test it out - if only to check that it is challenging enough and achievable.

How can Boards ensure they are getting the appropriate stakeholder input into strategic planning – staff, students and wider stakeholders?

By undertaking full and intensive stakeholder assessments - certainly by survey and then also through intense engagement with different groups.

And get them enthused by the process - by the style of engagement, preferably face to face again at last. Use lively and creative ways of depicting the future scenarios. And make it fun - there is too much grim news around!

Remember all the positive lessons of Covid. A lot of those were about innovative methods of engagement with students and staff. And in so many ways, universities came into their own about how they found new ways of Civic and stakeholder engagement. They were often the crucial link in the local and regional delivery.

It has been said that many universities’ strategies look alike – how can Boards better understand how their institution is truly distinctive?

In a word, keep it simple. Root it as far as possible in the specific set of circumstances that surround the institution - its place, its people, its past, as well as its unique future. Keep the destination as simple as possible, underpinned by clear ambitions. Avoid overcomplexity.

A sense of place is vital. All the features that uniquely create the quintessence of a particular university and its surrounding population need to be brought together in some bold statements. Of course, there also has to be the case made post-Covid for the global, virtual institution by almost every university, but in most cases this is unlikely to be the starting point in the search for uniqueness.

Any final words of advice?

Yes, although it’s probably an overused word, the strategy has to be agile. It has to have an inbuilt capacity to flex in the event of significant change. Its starting assumption is that for the foreseeable future, uncertainty is the norm. The universities that will thrive are the ones who have strategies that can almost reinvent themselves as they go. But the overriding vision for the university needs to stretch forward to at least 2030.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance. To discuss your particular needs or challenges, get in touch.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Strategy Q&A

Jul 12, 2021

Consulting Fellow Richard Sved recently had a chat with Joint CEO Susie Hills on all things fundraising strategy.

Richard is an experienced professional with a strong track record of strategic and operational excellence in the voluntary sector stretching well over two decades. His key strengths lie in charity strategic planning, fundraising, governance and communications – and the parts where all of these intersect.

Richard has led the fundraising function for nine national charities, has worked with a wide range of organisations as a consultant and trainer, and has direct experience and success in most areas of fundraising, including from individuals, trusts, HLF, Big Lottery Fund and companies. He has advised a wide range of organisations on their fundraising strategy, case for support development, and business planning in recent years, including Cancer Research UK, Tommy’s, Epilepsy Society and Girlguiding.

He also has experience of policy, communications, mentoring and governance development. Richard is Founding Director of 3rd Sector Mission Control, is a Trustee of St Albans Museums & Galleries Trust, and in his spare time established The Funding Network in Hertfordshire, which has so far raised nearly £40,000 for 11 small local organisations. He has worked and volunteered for charities for over 25 years.

Richard has co-authored a book on Fundraising Strategy with Claire Routley and it's available to preorder here.

Susie: Most of your work has been in the charity sector – what do you think higher education fundraising teams can learn from the charity sector? And vice versa?

Richard: Yes, I’ve worked more in the “broader” charity sector, certainly and have worked with such a range of causes over the last 25 or more years! It’s been great so far, and every new step is an opportunity for me to learn from what I see being done well, as well as to help the organisations I’m currently working with, synthesising some of the best bits from along the way. I think higher education fundraisers do so much very well, but I’d say there is scope to learn from the best that the broader sector has to offer, particularly around embracing and trialling innovative ideas. I worry that if all institutions fundraise in the same way from the same old sources, they are likely to look too similar to each other, and be vulnerable in the medium to longer term. Conversely, I think higher education fundraisers can teach my broader sectoral colleagues a lot! Particularly around major donor and individual giving fundraising particularly from alumni, where the relationship building that I have seen is often exemplary.

You have recently led a conference on fundraising strategy… what does a good fundraising strategy look like? Are there some key ingredients?

Yes, a whole day filled with experts (both consultants and practitioners) from around the world talking about fundraising strategy development and implementation. It was such fun and a bit of a dream to curate. I decided early on that I didn’t want to speak this time, but just wanted to learn from others because there are so many people doing great things at all levels of organisations who often don’t get a platform. You can see it all here.

I’m often asked this key ingredients question, and people are disappointed when I refuse to hand them a set structure with headings and sections for them to fill in! But the truth of the matter for me is that if it’s to work, each fundraising strategy needs to be tailored for the organisation in question, and not plucked from a template. Essentially, though, if that answer is too annoying, I would certainly want to see an explanation of where the organisation wants to get to, and how they are going to get there, with a clear explanation of what analysis led them to that conclusion, and what resources they need to make it happen.

Given the change the last 18 months has brought should everyone be reviewing their fundraising strategies now?

Being a fundraising strategy geek, I would say that even if there hadn’t been a pandemic, everyone should be returning to their strategy on a regular basis, to ensure it doesn’t stay on the shelf and is a live document. But yes, so much will have changed internally and externally, and so all our strategies will need to be reviewed, even if we don’t have all the answers. We have to think strategically and not spend our time lurching from activity to activity, event to event, crisis to crisis without thinking about the broader picture. There was so much talk from March to June 2020 of fundraisers needing to “pivot” their strategies that I became quite sick of the word! But yes, definitely dust whatever you have off, analyse what has gone well, what hasn’t, what is different, what your opportunities are, get planning and get implementing!

If you don’t have a fundraising strategy, is now a good or bad time to set about drafting a new fundraising strategy or should they wait until things have settled down (if they ever will!)?

There’s an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now. Start it now. Devote just a bit of time to it at first. You won’t regret it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll stop fundraising while you think more strategically. And in any case, if you wait for things to settle down, you could be waiting forever!

What do you think senior leadership and boards will be expecting to see in a fundraising strategy?

I think the key questions for me are around responsibility and accountability and differentiating between them. As a senior leader and as a trustee, I would want an answer to the questions “what do you need from me?” and “where do I fit in?”. And from a fundraiser's perspective, be ready to think hard about who you need to buy into your fundraising strategy, and how you can get them involved and with you for the ride. From a trustee perspective, board members should be thinking about answers to the questions set out helpfully in the Charity Commission’s CC20 paper (Charity fundraising: a guide to trustee duties). How would you address the six principles that are laid out in that paper from your perspective?

  • Planning effectively
  • Supervising your fundraisers
  • Protecting your charity’s reputation, money and other assets
  • Identifying and ensuring compliance with the laws or regulations that apply specifically to your charity’s fundraising
  • Identifying and following any recognised standards that apply to your charity’s fundraising
  • Being open and accountable

Many fundraising teams are under enormous pressure and strategic planning may feel impossible. How can they best approach strategic planning so it’s helpful but not disruptive?

This is such a good question, and I do appreciate the great pressure fundraising teams are facing right now. The important thing to realise is that you can’t come up with a fundraising strategy on your own, or at least not a good one anyway! You need to involve as wide a group as possible, though in the right way. How can you align your fundraising and non-fundraising colleagues most effectively? My guess would be that your most congruent points would be around understanding and defining your organisational mission, vision and values and being clear about why you as an organisation are worthy of support. That’s what you’re all there for in the end. Make sure that when you involve colleagues that they can see they’re being listened to, valued and their contributions addressed. It’s the best way to get buy in, but to get to that point you need to make sure you value their time and think really carefully about the open questions you’re going to ask them.

Are there ways to include the voice of donors and beneficiaries in your fundraising strategy?

Absolutely, yes. And the best fundraising teams are really doing this well, which takes me back to the first question on what higher education fundraisers can learn from other fundraisers. Listen to your donors, whether it’s through “real life” conversations or more formalised focus groups. Either way, their voices should be heard throughout your strategy. I would argue that it’s even more important, however, that the voices of the people for whom your charity exists are centrally included in your fundraising strategy. Does your fundraising represent them well? Is it authentic? Will it benefit them in the longer term? While respecting donors and building relationships with them, does your fundraising model put the community you serve at the heart? I would recommend the 10 principles set out by the Community-centric Fundraising movement for further reading on this. And I would say the principle of involvement is the same – provide opportunities to ensure meaningful involvement at every stage of your fundraising strategy development and implementation.

Richard Sved has written a book on fundraising strategy, which is coming out in November but available to preorder at the following outlets:

Governance Under Pressure: When Things Go Wrong

Jun 08, 2021

In the latest of our Governance Under Pressure series, Halpin CEO Susie Hills caught up with Consulting Fellow Will Spinks to discuss when things go wrong in university governance.

Susie: We have seen several high-profile stories relating to governance failures in the charity and education sectors. Are there any common themes emerging which governors should take note of?

Will: Yes - some of the reports recently have been very uncomfortable if, for some of us, fascinating reading. You do find yourself sometimes both thanking your lucky stars you haven’t been in the centre of the storm and wondering, if you were, how might your own decision making have weathered it.

At a high level, I think there are some general themes, some of them, well-proven over time in different contexts:

  • When there is a problem, you need to act consistently with both your own organisation’s values and in keeping with what rational stakeholders might subsequently expect.
  • Helpful in this, is imagining all that you are saying and doing will subsequently be open to public scrutiny. How will you feel if this is the case?
  • If struggling, seek wise counsel and act upon it.
  • Remember, dealing with a difficult issue well can enhance reputation.

In political circles, the phrase often quoted is, “it’s the cover-up that gets you”, with the example usually being linked to President Nixon who famously was recorded saying, “it’s going to be forgotten”, three days after the Watergate break-in. Whilst Nixon was clearly complicit, the more recent examples we have seen have been more about an unwillingness to contemplate that mistakes have been made and investigate issues thoroughly. They have been more cultural in nature but the subsequent impact when opened up to scrutiny has still been deeply uncomfortable for those involved.

Things go wrong in all institutions. How can governors be confident that they will see the warning lights in time?

I’m not sure that, in a governance role, you can always be entirely confident that things won’t go wrong. I’ve worked in very large organisations all my career – in both executive and governance capacities – in commercial, public sector and charitable settings – and stuff inevitably happens.

What you can do is ensure the culture is right in both diligently managing risk and seeking assurances about key processes before things happen and then, particularly, in ensuring there are good processes for dealing with issues once they, inevitably, arise.

Is there a danger that the fear of things going wrong stops an institution from seizing new opportunities?

This is I think, a slightly different theme from the most recent cases but I would hope not. My experience suggests that well-governed and managed institutions manage risk well by setting risk appetite and being prepared to manage different levels of risk in different settings. Earlier in my career, I found the concept of risk appetite somewhat theoretical but as I’ve had more experience, I’ve come to believe it is one of the most important areas for governors / NEDs/ Trustees to focus upon and specify. Done well, this allows institutions to knowingly establish, take on and manage risk.

How can you make sure the lines between non-exec and exec team are respected when things go wrong? Is it inevitable that boards end up taking on some executive powers when there is a crisis?

It is probably inevitable that there will be a tendency to do so but I’m not sure that it is inevitable that it has to happen. Context will also be important - in some cases it may be appropriate to do so in some cases it certainly won’t be. On the temptation to get more involved, I think the nature of the crisis and the nature of the relationship the governors have with the executive team - and their confidence in them - directly impacts upon this.

During the pandemic, I’ve observed first-hand a number of institutions consciously delegating more to their executive team than would normally be the case balancing this with more frequent, often informal, communication updates as to how things are going.

In other types of crises at other times, I can think of examples where a demonstrable independence from the executive team has been vital in managing an organisation’s response to a particular challenge. I’ve heard it said that whilst “stepping in” can be uncomfortable, “stepping aside” is rarely an option. Stepping in may be through a governor exercising leadership or it could be through appointing independent wise counsel. Wise counsel can sometimes be important in a more public setting as well as in a more personal capacity.

What is the role of a board in a crisis? What support can/should they seek?

I think the Board should focus on three areas:

  • Ensuring the organisation is proactive in managing interest in the issue externally. Seeking to both be open about the content of the issue and how it is being managed. Establishing confidence in the process is key.
  • Ensuring that it is recognised that the issue may impact upon internal stakeholders too. The confidence of colleagues in how the issue is being managed will shape future relationships. This too needs to be managed.
  • Being certain that any regulatory obligations associated with the issue are being properly addressed in a timely manner.

Whilst executive teams will often practice in dealing with issues during crisis management training, it is rarer, in my experience, for Boards/governing bodies to be actively involved (other than checking you have contact details and testing how quickly you can get hold of key players). Boards need to practice too.

Q: What is the role of a secretary in a crisis? Who are they reporting to?

In some organisations, the Secretary may have a single “hat” they are wearing and in others they may have more than one. Certainly, I’ve had roles where I was both the “Secretary” and the “Chief Operating Officer” with distinctive crisis management accountabilities for each role.

In my view, a Secretary has an obligation to ensure the Board, and Chair specifically, are well-sighted on key issues as soon as is appropriate and practical, supporting a culture of “no surprises”. The Secretary may not necessarily do this personally but would, I suggest, ensure it is done, for example, through the Chief Executive. Once done, the Secretary should ensure that the Board focuses on the three areas I outlined earlier; managing external interest, ensuring internal impacts are considered and being certain that regulatory obligations are honoured.

With the Secretary hat on, the reporting obligation is, very clearly in my view, to the governing body or Board, with a specific obligation to the Chair. With the COO hat on, it is very clearly to the Chief Executive.

Will Spinks is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education governance.