The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has speedily raised $14 million in Year One of its ‘Centenary Campaign’ major gift appeal to support future medical breakthroughs, and secured a Fundraising Institute Australia award in the process.

The timing may have been a little off when the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research launched a major giving campaign in 2015, the same year it turned 100. Head of Fundraising, Susanne Williamson, points out that ideally this milestone year should have been when the Centenary Campaign was wrapping up – except she was recruited to help run it and she didn’t join the team until July 2013. “But we’re making it work,” she says.

And how. Other than its truncated preparation time, the appeal has been a text-book example of best practice, reflected in the achievements chalked up in its Year One ‘quiet phase’. Not least of which is the fact it has won an Fundraising Institute Australia Award for Excellence, in the category of ‘Major Gifts – Over $5 million.’

Already $14 million has been committed against a 2015 target of $10 million and an overall goal of $50 million by 2019. This consists of 12 gifts and pledges – two of $3 million, four of $1 million and a further six ranging from $500,000 to $1 million.

Making these results even more outstanding is the fact the fundraising team of seven full-time staff succeeded in raising annual fundraising revenue by 60% year-on-year, not counting income from the campaign. And they’d only been working together for 12 months before its launch, during which time they had to prepare the case for support, assess prospects, develop major gift skills, review the database and engage the board to start securing founding pledges by mid-2014.

Also “previously the greatest part of fundraising revenue had come from bequests,” Williamson says. “It’s been a very big step to go, ‘Oh, we are going to ask people who are alive to make gifts.’ And not just any gifts, but big gifts!”

Running a gold-standard campaign 

Williamson ascribes the campaign’s early results to the momentum created by the centenary, and the Institute’s buried treasure. Namely a great, untold story of 100 years of international discoveries; a highly committed board; associations with many influential people; and dedicated supporters in the database who had the capacity to give.

A straightforward and powerful proposition has helped too. The goal is to secure 100 five-year fellowships for promising young Australian scientists who need research wins to seek funds, but need funds to do research. Centenary donors can choose the disease area, fellowship naming rights are available as recognition, and to surprise and delight them, an exclusive stewardship program will be offered at the end of 2016 for 2017.

Among these classic characteristics of a good major gifts campaign or program, are leadership gifts from the board. They can be hard to obtain. But Williamson says that after the other elements were lined up and as excitement built, when asks were made by the director or the chairman, two individuals put up their hands for million-dollar gifts. “The earliest commitment came from long-standing donors and then the board members stepped up, so they weren’t the first but they were close behind,” she reveals.

Another priority was engaging influencers in centenary celebrations, and stakeholders including the scientific community, collaborators, faculty, staff, government and the general public. A strategy for this was worked on by the two leaders of the campaign, Williamson and the Institute’s Head of Marketing and Communications, Penny Fannin.

During 2015, more than 20 events were held including the Fiat Lux (‘Let there be light’) centenary launch attended by then PM, the Honourable Tony Abbott MP, a science fiction film festival, a lunch hosted by the president and attended by two Nobel laureates, and of course, afternoon tea with a giant birthday cake. Plus the fundraising team facilitated 45 additional personal tours, visits and donor briefings.

Major gift campaign sculptureThe unveiling of this sculpture called Irreparable loss of potential
– commissioned by the Dyson Bequest trustees and created by
sculptor Michael Meszaros – led to a $1 million gift. 

Also, one-on-one meetings were arranged for the president, director or Williamson to directly approach prospects, particularly former committee members, alumni and donors – following the major gift campaign principle of beginning with your nearest and dearest. Preparation included personalising a case for support based on the donor’s interest area. From 15 approaches in the year, 12 commitments were received – 10 from individuals or organisations with a prior link to the Institute.

Then in August, general awareness raising began through the organisation’s first advertising campaign and media supported by Channel 10, Fairfax Media and 3AW, with a key message of “100 years of discoveries for humanity”. This increased public awareness from 45% of Victorians to 50%. It also reinforced pride in donors’ connections to the Institute and helped open the door to further conversations.

3 lessons to share

For an ambitious major gifts campaign, courage is vital. “It needs to be aspirational,” says Williamson, “so you’ve got to back yourself.” She adds that it’s “time well spent” to invest in developing a very strong case for support, including evidence of the need. And give yourself five years (not one! for a significant milestone campaign.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute fast facts

Year established: 1915
Mission: Mastery of disease through discovery
Net annual fundraising income: $15 million
Main fundraising channels:
Government (National Health and Medical Research Council), bequests, major gifts, grants from trusts and foundations

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