Always make big plans: How the University of Sydney has INSPIRED giving

The mastermind of Sydney Uni's phenomenally successful INSPIRED campaign, Tim Dolan, talks to Nicole Richards about why Australian philanthropists “are every bit as generous” as their American counterparts, and why $100 million gifts will be the new mega-gifts in just a few years’ time.Tim Dolan

Competition for philanthropic dollars is tough and getting tougher. Higher education has redoubled its efforts to attract the support of philanthropy, and these efforts have been rewarded with some of Australia’s biggest philanthropic gifts in recent years.

To date, no tertiary institution has engaged with philanthropy as successfully as the University of Sydney. When the University announced last month that it had hit its $600 million fundraising target for the INSPIRED campaign two years ahead of schedule, people sat up and took notice.

The campaign’s unprecedented success will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Sydney Uni’s Vice-Principal (Advancement), Tim Dolan, whose keen appreciation of the potential of philanthropy has set a new benchmark for fundraising in Australia.

NR: The INSPIRED campaign has been breathtakingly successful, hitting its $600 million target two years early. What have been the most important factors that contributed to this result?

TD: I would say three things: 

  • The unwavering commitment of our Vice-Chancellor to instil a culture of philanthropy on campus.  Getting academic buy-in is a pre-requisite for campaign success and Sydney has had great support from all corners of the University.
  • We have a very talented group of development professionals who are exceptionally good at what they do.
  • Because Sydney Uni has among the strongest brands in the country, our donors tend to trust us to deliver on big ideas.  It is amazing what you can accomplish when there is a true partnership built on mutual accountability.     

NR: You’ve secured sizeable donations from some of Australia’s lesser known, and emergent, philanthropists. To your mind, what are the keys to a successful relationship with major donors and what can/should these donors reasonably expect to see from their gift? 

TD: Major gifts are fundamentally about achieving measurable impact—whether it be cancer research or the study of ancient Greek—and it is our responsibility to always strive to exceed our donors’ expectations. 

If we fail to do this, we simply won’t retain their benefaction. 

Donors are very smart, and they need to be kept in the loop and respected for their views.  They also need to feel that there is clear institutional accountability.    

NR: Prior to coming to Sydney seven years ago, you worked in development at UCLA. What are the key differences you’ve observed between the US and Australian contexts?

TD: The first thing I noticed was the issue of scale.  At the institution where I previously worked, we had 200 front-line fundraisers. When I arrived at Sydney in 2009, we had about 10.  I quickly picked up that we needed to provide better training for our Australian fundraisers. 

I think Australian donors are every bit as generous as our friends in America.  What accounts for the statistical gap between the two communities is more a product of poorly executed fundraising—an obsession with high-cost special events, a misplaced focus on corporate giving, and going to donors with an elaborate menu of needs instead of first engaging with their interests.

Thankfully this is improving and the sector is noticeably maturing. 

NR: You’ve said previously that philanthropy in Australia was a relatively untapped resource and that fundraising methods lagged behind the potential generosity of local donors. How great do you think the potential of philanthropy is for higher education in this country and are we getting closer to realising that potential?

TD: Five years from now, $100 million gifts will take place on nearly an annual basis. 

We clearly have no shortage of tremendous wealth in Australia. Where we have lagged behind a bit is in imagining what these giving opportunities might look like. 

Mega-gifts are the by-products of great vision—not unlike the mentality of the entrepreneurs who helped to build this country—and we’ll need clever facilitators and academic leaders whose line of sight extends well beyond the observable horizon.     

NR: How important is leadership to maximising potential relationships between philanthropy and the University?

TD: It is absolutely critical. 

We would not have reached our $600 million target two years early had it not been for the leadership of the Vice-Chancellor and the Chancellor.

NR: INSPIRED has deliberately targeted younger donors as potential supporters. How important are next-gen givers to your longer term development strategy? 

TD: Our telephone program will bring in close to 7,000 donors this year, many of whom are under 30 and new donors to the University. 

This cohort is critical to the future growth of our program, and will be increasingly visible in our next campaign. 

Our current students have been very successful in reaching out to our young alumni and getting them more involved in the life of the University.  By stressing their ‘participation’ over any specific dollar target, it has helped us convert many of these young alumni into regular donors. 

NR: You've mentioned that donors prefer being asked how they want their money spent (instead of being told what they should fund) - are there any other key differences between Sydney Uni's fundraising methodology and the fundraising methodologies you see being pursued within the wider NFP sector in Australia? 

TD: The University of Sydney is focussing a lot more on stewardship than we used to. We have four people now whose principal job is to report on past giving. 

Our donors really appreciate being updated on how their money was spent, and this has been a smart investment for us. 

In the area of major gifts, our written proposals and pre-proposals are something we have spent a lot of time honing and improving. Hiring new talent based on observed potential rather than on pure experience has also worked out nicely.  We have found quite a number of clever people who have been a terrific fit in our university culture, and that has contributed to helping us raise over $130 million this year.   

NR: You’ve now set a new target to raise $750 million by 2017. How do you plan to reach that goal?

TD: Early in my career I had the good fortune of working directly with the well-known philanthropist Chuck Feeney in 1999-2000. 

One night while we were out to dinner, I was chatting with him nervously over a big fundraising goal that we were about to announce the next day.  Mr Feeney took out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, and handed me a scribbled note which I still have today that said: Always make big plans, they are a lot easier to achieve.  

Learn more about INSPIRED: The campaign to support the University of Sydney and some of its INSPIRED donors.

Nicole Richards is is editor of Generosity, a website providing insight and inspiration for donors and their advisors.