As the dreaded Coronavirus began to spread across Australia, a group of school girls helped spur on the University of Queensland’s efforts to raise funds to accelerate a promising vaccine. Jeremy Bradshaw explains how UQ raised over $23 million in just three months.

School students inspire multi-million-dollar vaccine fundraising

On March 11, 2020, just days before large parts of the Australian economy and society began locking down to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, a group of Year 5 students at St Margaret’s Anglican Girls’ School sent an email to The University of Queensland (UQ) researcher Professor Paul Young.

In the email, the girls pledged $100 to help UQ develop a Coronavirus vaccine. Paul and his team had been working hard on developing a vaccine since January, and this was just the inspiration they needed.

He wrote back saying, “It was extremely touching and humbling to receive your kind letter … your kind thoughts and donation mean more to us than pretty much anything else that has crossed our desks since we began this journey in early January.”

“I find it inspiring when young people, such as yourselves, harness the power of philanthropy to solve the world’s greatest problems.”

In February, UQ had committed to raising $23.5 million to fast-track a promising vaccine candidate, but the email from the St Margaret’s students was the catalyst to really ramp up fundraising. It was the signal from the community that people understood the seriousness of the situation and wanted to help.

A daunting challenge

UQ fundraising for a vaccine

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Advancement) Jennifer Karlson

Jennifer Karlson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Advancement) at UQ, was given the responsibility of  coordinating their $23.5 million fundraising goal.

“It was a daunting target, but we had a feeling the community would rally,” she says.

One of the challenges confronting Jennifer and her team was that the lockdown meant they were forced to work from home and were not able to meet face-to-face with potential donors. When asking for large gifts, meeting face-to-face is usually a prerequisite to making a successful ‘ask’.

Instead, Zoom and the phone became critical tools in the solicitation of potential donors. The researchers became the key ‘storytellers’ in championing the project, explaining to donors how they planned to develop the vaccine. Frequent Zoom updates with groups of donors ensured supporters were kept in the loop on the progress of the new vaccine.

Another issue the UQ development team had to overcome was the fact that success was not guaranteed – this is simply the nature of scientific discovery. Prospective donors had to overcome this mental hurdle if they wanted to support the campaign.

Donors were made aware of the risk involved, but they were also informed of UQ’s expertise and track record in vaccine development.

 ‘Team Vaccine’: a key to fundraising success

From the outset, university leadership really got behind the campaign. Former Vice-Chancellor and President Peter Hoj was an active partner with potential funders, and the researchers understood they needed to help with engaging donors.

One of the key success factors for delivering on the fundraising target was the creation of ‘Team Vaccine’ – a small group of major funders who were eager to receive regular updates on the progress, and in many cases were also prepared to advocate on behalf of the university and talk with other potential funders.

“When we were in discussions with potential donors, we would ask some of them if they wanted to speak with our existing donors to get an understanding of why they had given,” says Jennifer.

“For example, the Paul Ramsay Foundation were early donors and their senior executives spoke with staff at several companies like BP and Newcrest Mining to explain their rationale for supporting the vaccine research. This advocacy by external stakeholders really helped secure significant support.”

Funding tap turns on

Within the space of three months, UQ raised its target of $23.5 million, enabling the acceleration of the development of a Coronavirus vaccine.

Along with the major gift asking, an email appeal was sent to alumni which raised $490,000 from 1,600 donors.

The email, sent as part of UQ’s Not if, When – the Campaign to Create Change, asked alumni to pitch in to help reduce the timeline for finding an effective vaccine by six months. Typically, vaccination research can take up to 12-18 months. For those not in a position to donate, UQ asked their community to share the importance of their work on social media using the hashtag #clapCOVID19researchers.

In all, over 2,600 donors contributed to the project, and all received a personalised video thank you. Students, known as the ‘UQ Thank You Crew’, created the videos of themselves thanking and naming each donor – a great example of donor stewardship and using available resources.

Some of the leading donors to the vaccine fundraising campaign

Queensland Government  $10 million
Paul Ramsay Foundation  $3.5 million
Australian Government  $5 million
BHP Foundation  $2 million
Newcrest Mining  $1 million
The Lott  $1 million
Glencore  $725,000
A2 Milk  NZ$500,000
Aurizon  $250,000
RACQ  $100,000

Vaccine halted – but donors sympathetic

UQ fundraising for a vaccineDespite encouraging signs that the UQ vaccine was advancing well, progress was halted in December due to issues that cropped up during the testing phase. Everybody from the researchers, to donors and the development team were disappointed, however everyone knew that this was a possibility.

A special Zoom was set up with donors to explain why vaccine development was stopped. Donors were very sympathetic with the outcome reinforced by messages of support.

Jennifer said many were thrilled to have been part of such a significant and urgent project.

“Despite the outcome, the campaign actually reinforced relationships with our donors. Supporters said they felt like they were part of the team tackling the virus and the project will continue to advance vaccine development in the future.”

Campaign learnings

There were a number of important lessons learned from the campaign.

“The importance of Team Vaccine and having external stakeholders advocate for us was crucial to raising the funds – reinforcing the power and connectivity of networks,” says Jennifer.

“Also it was important to be ethical and not opportunistic – once we had raised exactly what we needed, we stopped the active campaign even though there were still donors who were prepared to support alternative areas.”

And lastly, Jennifer says it was a wonderful result to achieve the target despite the challenges of staff working remotely and the community being in social isolation. In fact UQ staff only met with some of their donors, such as The Lott, in-person, for the first time many months after they had made their donation.

Read more about UQ’s first major philanthropic campaign, Not if, When here, and learn how they raised vital funds for scholarships, teaching and learning, and research.




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