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Fundraising – good enough to cut?

by Shaun Horan | May 14, 2020 | Fundraising

The CASE-Ross survey is out. As in most other years, it shows an increase in the amount being pledged (over 20% increase on last year), and increased cash-in. As a whole, the sector raised £1.3bn, the highest amount ever. That’s a total to be proud of, and it shows that fundraising in the sector is becoming ever more mature and important.

However, that snapshot also feels a little like a survey taken in 1913, or 1938. The world of 2020 onwards now looks extremely different. Not because people will stop giving – many universities have seen a significant increase in fundraising activity. It has been a real success on many measures, not just the money secured for Covid-related projects. Fundraising has also provided a huge morale-boost to universities; fundraisers have jumped in and helped in areas like student recruitment; there has been a huge promotion of the importance of higher education through fundraising activity.

Yes, fundraising feels like it has taken the bull by the horns, got out there and proved its worth to the University. Perhaps it has become so important that it now needs to face cuts like every other area of the University. Does that feel like an odd sentence to read?

Cuts are coming

Nobody knows what will happen this Autumn to University recruitment. There are lots of guesses and analysis, but all Universities can do is to plan for a number of scenarios. At one end, the scenario that no international students will come, and there is a drop in domestic students, to the other end where students are on campus and things are more or less stable.

However, universities can’t wait to see which of those scenarios play out. They have to make moves to protect cash-flow and income, so that if the worst happens then they can survive. So cuts are coming, and if you are the Director of Development, then you will be asked to make savings. Should you try to hold out and get your area spared?

Last ditch defence

Cuts in higher education are not new, and the normal behaviour for everyone is to defend their own areas as vigorously as possible. You’ve probably done this before, I certainly have. Here are the key reasons why you shouldn’t cut fundraising:

  1. The Return on Investment is higher than anywhere else in the institution. Who else can give you four, five or even ten to one?
  2. Development generates income.
  3. Development deals with influential people who need to see that the University is serious about this area
  4. Development plays a key role in promoting reputation, including with alumni who can influence recruitment.

All these arguments are potentially true. But let’s be clear – if a cut doesn’t come from your area, it will fall more heavily somewhere else. This is, right now, a zero-sum game with a finite amount of pie to share out.

Show that you see the bigger picture

There has never, literally never, been a more difficult time to be a leader in higher education. You have to make decisions with a very limited amount of information and piles of conflicting advice. The future of a great institution is in your hands. Famous names across the country are likely to fold – theatres and other arts venues, commercial and not-for-profit organisations etc. You are doing your best to ensure your institution isn’t one of them.

The key drivers for university finances are student recruitment and research, and the commercial income that follows because of those two areas. That’s what leaders will be most concerned with right now.

The easiest and fastest way to get to the savings Universities need to make immediately is to ask everyone to take the same cut. This will probably fall on both academic and professional services. There really isn’t time to slice and dice on this.

So, instead of objecting, even if everyone around you does, I recommend that you accept the situation quickly, and implement it in a way that does as little damage as possible to your ability to raise money. Be clear on what you can and cannot do, but show that you understand what is needed, and that you have preserved what the University really needs at this point. Focus on those activities that have the best ROI, make sure you can still do as much major gift fundraising as possible. Make sure you are able to react quickly. Take some tough decisions on beloved events and mailings. Do reunions more cheaply and be innovative with online activity. Let inventiveness replace cost wherever you can.

This really is the time not to ask what the University can do for Development, but instead what Development can do for its institution. It is there to serve, and there was never a more important time to do so.

So what’s next?

Run those amazing campaigns on a shoestring, have those entrepreneurial ideas that Development is so good at, connect people across the campus who are doing amazing work, and be a source of inspiration for those who need hope. Development is brilliant at optimism in the face of adversity. Spread that around.

And take the medicine that everyone has to swallow in the best way that you can. Hopefully, it won’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario, and you can rebuild faster knowing that you did your bit when required.

If we can all do that, perhaps we will come out the other side of this with a better, stronger institution than the one that went into it.