The University of Queensland’s first big philanthropic campaign raised over $600 million and inspired donors worldwide.

University of Queensland major philanthropic campaignWhen UQ launched their campaign, Not if, When – the Campaign to Create Change three years ago, their goal was to raise an ambitious $500 million by 2020. Now, at the beginning of 2021, the campaign has closed having met its goal one year ahead of schedule, surpassing its target and the team’s expectations.

“[After the official launch], we really accelerated our efforts to rally the UQ community around the campaign and our very ambitious goal. Closing the campaign with $607 million in gifts from over 16,600 donors and a more connected and engaged alumni community than ever before is truly humbling,” says Jennifer Karlson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Advancement) and campaign board member.

Such an amazing result was the product of thoughtful planning and a strong, dedicated team. The concept was first conceived back in 2014 when university leadership saw the potential to engage and connect deeper with their alumni and the wider community, not just their students. What followed was an in-depth consultation process to understand the university’s areas of need and develop a strategic plan that ensured the campaign was not just for the ‘Advancements’ team but for the entire university – one that the entire UQ community could get behind.

A campaign board was established consisting of an advisory group of volunteers from the UQ community, including Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Høj, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (External Engagement) Rongyu Li and Jennifer. The Board was co-chaired by immunologist and inventor of the HPV vaccine, Professor Ian Frazer AC and Caroline Frazer.

University of Queensland major philanthropic campaign

Co-Chairs of the Campaign Board, Professor Ian Frazer AC and Caroline Frazer

Three areas of need were identified:

1. Empowering students through scholarships, accommodation, work experience and study opportunities.
2. Attracting and retaining the best academic leaders and providing innovative and effective learning environments.
3. Funding research to drive discovery and impact.

Not if, When was inspired by the simple goal to ensure that impact was celebrated in this campaign from the very beginning — reinforcing that through partnership with UQ, it is not a matter of if something will be possible, but when. It is a message of hope and ambition,” says Jennifer.

“Our tagline ‘together, our greatest days lie ahead’ talks to power of partnership and the impact that can be achieved when the university, its alumni and the community unite behind important causes.”

An Australian university with a global force

Based in the capital of Queensland, Brisbane, UQ worked tirelessly to make the campaign global.

Donations came in from over 60 countries around the world – not surprising, when you consider UQ, one of the world’s top 50 universities, has over 300,000 alumni spread across 190 countries. Half of the donations that came in were from UQ graduates.

But keeping their alumni connected and passionate about the university and their goal has been a long-term process.

“We have over 50 alumni councils across the world, in a variety of shapes and sizes, along with established fundraising groups in the UK, US and Hong Kong that have hosted events, opened doors, acted as ambassadors and forged connections with alumni in their regions,” says Jennifer.

These alumni ambassador councils were a crucial channel for UQ to spread the word of their campaign and engage with alumni in each city, state and country. Not only was the Campaign to Create Change successful in raising vital funds for the university, but it also galvanised the university’s relationships with their alumni, no matter the distance between them.

Last year, they established their first global alumni board to ensure the legacy of the Not if, When campaign continues.

Supporting a better future for the world not just a university

As part of the focus on empowering students, UQ was committed to increasing their existing scholarship endowment by $30 million by 2020. UQ Scholarships are awarded to students to help them cover the costs associated with tertiary education. They created the Create Change Scholarship match, pledging $15 million in matched donations for donations over $50,000, to encourage others to support this area of need.

University of Queensland major philanthropic campaign

Scholarship recipient Adam Bonner and his father Tim

The response created over 130 new scholarships for UQ students experiencing financial hardship each year, in perpetuity.

Over $131 million from the campaign was pledged to teaching and learning, creating numerous new Professorial Chairs in business ethics, sustainability, the classics and science.

Over 60% of the campaign funds will be directed towards research innovation, accelerating projects addressing climate change and advancing clinical trials in combating motor neurone disease (MND), stroke, cancer and dementia.

Having three key funding priorities in one campaign can run the risk of diluting the message but UQ focused on the impact that donors could have overall in partnership with the university.

They moved the university to the background of the campaign narrative, focusing on the many faces and stories from their community that highlighted the need for funding in their key areas. They asked partners and donors to use their imagination, to tell them their goals for the future, and “support the change they wanted to see in the world”.

“Storytelling was a crucial part of our marketing strategy. We felt the most powerful way to unite the UQ community was through sharing the stories of the many students, academics, researchers and projects that have been impacted by the generosity of others,” says Jennifer.

To begin with, the team focused on building awareness of the campaign through print, radio, digital and in-flight advertising. They held target events across the globe. As the campaign matured and gained momentum, they strengthened their connections with their community and eventually moved their communications to their own channels, speaking to prospective donors through e-newsletters, social media, their alumni magazine, and website. This allowed them to create two-way channels of communication with their community.

And their messaging worked, inspiring over 16,000 people to give to the future UQ had envisioned.

Donations ranged from $5 to larger eight-figure major gifts, typical of tertiary education philanthropy. Altogether they received over 34,000 gifts with most of them well under $1000. Each gift, no matter how small, came with a personal story connected by a desire to create meaningful and impactful change.

“Some of the smaller gifts to the campaign were among the most inspiring – gifts from young children who sent in their pocket money to support research, international students who chose to donate their tuition fees when they couldn’t return to campus during COVID-19, staff members who set-up payroll deductions to support students experiencing hardship, right through to elderly members of our alumni community who sent cheques accompanied by touching handwritten letters of support,” says Jennifer.

COVID-19: a magnifying glass on the need

COVID-19 highlighted the urgency and need for UQ: “We could not ignore the fact that so many of our students needed emergency financial support, and that our COVID-19 vaccine researchers would need the partnership of donors to accelerate what was a promising vaccine candidate. Finding the right tone was important,” says Jennifer.

You can read more about the school students whose donation spurred UQ’s COVID-19 vaccination research here.

While fundraising and philanthropy faced a lot of uncertainty as the many surprises and challenges of 2020 continued to play out, UQ felt the support of their community, who stepped forward to offer help before the university even had a chance to ask.

“What evolved was an organic community of ambassadors who called for support on our behalf. School children, corporates, foundations, alumni, staff and the community at large held fundraisers, free-dress days and appeals to support the university,” says Jennifer.

Campaign results 

Number of donors over 16,600
Number of gifts  over 34,000
Funds for Discovery & Impact $385 million
Transforming Teaching & Learning $132 million
Empowering Student Success $90 million
Total donations  $607 million

This community response embodied the campaign’s tagline of ‘together, our greatest days lie ahead’.

The astounding level of generosity that UQ saw required a special approach to stewardship. Alongside their regular reporting, UQ created a ‘Thank You Crew’ made up entirely of students who made 3,800 thank you calls to donors, wrote 5,000 handwritten cards and sent 2,000 personalised videos to donors to thank them and provide updates on their gifts.

The Crew played a role in reinforcing alumni connections, making 4,500 calls to those celebrating milestone gradation years in 2020.

For Jennifer and the UQ team, seeing the result of the campaign and the strengthened bond between the university and its community has been “truly humbling”.

“It has been inspiring to witness so many individuals, families and organisations choose UQ as a trusted partner to achieve their vision for a better world – the community has far exceeded our hopes for the campaign.”


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