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UK universities' fundraising success helps sooth financial uncertainty

Fundraising added more than £1 billion to the coffers of universities in the UK and Ireland last year, new research shows. Sue Cunningham, President and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) argues that the findings point to the growing importance of philanthropy for the future health and vitality of the sector.


University leaders in the UK and Ireland have understood for a long time the important role that fundraising can play. In the past 15 years alone, university fundraising activities have grown consistently in these countries – increasing philanthropic income from £350 million to more than £1 billion. This new high in philanthropic investment is evidenced through the release today of Giving to Excellence: Philanthropic Support for Higher Education Ross-CASE Report 2019.

Any individual or organisation that has contributed to this impressive achievement of support should be proud that their time, money and expertise has helped to advance the future of education and society. The outcomes of generous philanthropic investment in universities are myriad – from providing the vital resources to develop and sustain the laboratories that produce life-changing research to increased funding for more students to gain a degree through the provision of bursaries and scholarships. Current students also benefit immeasurably from the mentoring and guidance that growing communities of alumni can provide.

Philanthropy also helps to advance educational missions of universities throughout the country, many of which were born out of philanthropy themselves. When done well, fundraising campaigns can help create strong bonds by bringing a university’s constituencies more closely together, including students, staff, alumni and the local community. The philanthropic culture in higher education is also encouraging universities to more effectively communicate the beneficial outcomes of donor investment through the stewardship reporting provided to donors.

For all these reasons, I am pleased to see that universities in the UK and Ireland have seen an 11 per cent increase in philanthropic income in the last year. After a slight dip recorded in the previous year, the total income from philanthropic sources has reached £1.08 billion – the third time that the generosity of donors to our universities has resulted in investments in excess of £1 billion.

The report also underlines the increased importance for universities to develop long-term relationships with alumni, staff, students, trusts and corporations in order to generate sustainable levels of fundraising. Supporting the institution at which we studied not only provides opportunities to students and contributes to the building of a civil society, it also gives donors a new-found emotional connection with the place that has often positively transformed their lives.

The report highlights excellent examples of successful and innovative fundraising, including:

·         The University of Exeter’s Making the Exceptional Happen campaign, which launched in 2017, has now raised more than £50 million in donations and pledges of 71,000 volunteering hours. The cash donations will go towards critical research and student scholarships.

·         The University of Bristol has also had particular fundraising success through its Sanctuary Scholarship programme, which launched in 2016. This initiative aims to extend educational opportunities to people from refugee and asylum-seeking communities by offering scholarships. During 2017-18, 345 Bristol alumni made donations to support Sanctuary Scholarships, raising £25,590 over the year.

·         University College Dublin (UCD) launched its Champions Changing Futures campaign in 2014 with the aim of ensuring that all students have access to a university education at UCD, regardless of their ability to pay. It also ensures that the best and brightest students are provided with as much support as possible to reach their potential. To date, 230 students have received a scholarship as a result of fundraising efforts.

Fundraising has historically been dominated by long-established and high-profile universities, with the lion’s share of this philanthropic investment generously provided by donors directed to Oxford and Cambridge. It is exciting to see the growth of this success now across the sector – with the number of institutions other than Oxbridge raising more than £5 million per annum nearly doubling in the last decade. Furthermore, the Ross-CASE Report 2019 data demonstrates that a group of universities described as ‘developing’ have seen a 51 per cent increase in philanthropic income in on year.

We face uncertain times in UK higher education, and societal and political upheaval could soon change the way that the sector is funded. The long-awaited Augar Review may recommend changes to tuition fee levels. On top of this, the sector faces some important decisions about how it funds the USS pension pot. We therefore have some crucial decisions to make if the sector is going to remain financially secure.

As funding sources for higher education come under pressure, engaging with the alumni community and other potential donors will become more important than ever. As CASE (The Council for Advancement and Support of Education) works with more than 3,600 institutions across the globe to support their advancement ambitions, it is exciting to see the growing professionalism and leadership in educational fundraising in the UK. Today’s report highlights that we are well placed to build on this success.