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The University of Queensland has made headlines for securing million-dollar donations. But UQ’s work in building a donor pipeline is likely to produce the biggest long-term dividends.

The University of Queensland has made headlines for securing million-dollar donations. But, as Andrew Sadauskas reports, UQ’s work in building a donor pipeline is likely to produce the biggest long-term dividends.

In March, Mark Hutchinson, the former CEO and President of General Electric Europe, donated $1 million towards establishing a Professorial Chair in Ethics at the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Business, Economics and Law. Hutchinson graduated from UQ with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1986. The generous  gift followed the appointment of US college fundraising expert Ted Wynn as the faculty’s Director of Advancement in August 2017.

Before moving to Australia, Wynn was Director Of Development, Corporate and Foundation Relations at George Mason University. He has held senior fundraising and advancement positions at the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania and William & Mary. Since taking on his new role, Wynn has been hard at work strengthening the faculty’s alumni relations fundraising program.

CULTURE OF GIVING AT US COLLEGES

Contrary to popular belief, Wynn says the main reason why major US universities succeed in philanthropy is not just because their alumni have done well in business.

“From the time they step through the doors, they feel they are part of an exclusive community of scholars that has opened doors for them. When students walk around campus, they see things that are named for donors.

When they see their professors, the professors hold chairs that are named for donors.

There’s a strong culture and understanding of philanthropy, So when you graduate, if you’re someone who’s in a position to make a million dollars, you’ve already been cultivated for 20 years. No-one shows up and a couple of months later there’s a million-dollar gift. There’s a long-term culture of engagement,” he says.

HOW LEADING US UNIVERSITIES MANAGE ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT

A pivotal part of the calendar for US universities is homecoming, which typically falls in September or October and includes a weekend of activities for past students of the university. According to Wynn, a common starting point for donor engagement at US universities is the class reunions that typically happen every five years on homecoming weekend.

“Say the University of Pennsylvania is coming into homecoming weekend. Any class years ending in eight or three would have a five-year reunion. The class of 2008 would have a 10-year anniversary. Four years out, members of that class would organise a committee.

They set a goal of raising somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3 million for scholarships. That committee is tasked with contacting their classmates to help fundraisers open doors and start conversations,” Wynn says.

“Come alumni weekend 2018, the class of 2008 can present a big cheque  and  they can say: ‘We played our part. As our 10th-reunion commitment we have collectively raised $3.5 million.’ They ask their classmates to make a five-year pledge, and by the time they make up their pledge there’s another reunion cycle, so that gets people in the habit of giving reunion cycle after reunion cycle.”

As the alumni go through life, from a five-year reunion, to 15 years, to 25, the fundraising goal for the class gets bigger. “As members of that class progress in their careers and make more money, they scale up their giving. So by the time they’re at that 25th or 30th reunion, we’re looking at six figures from those who have the cash,” Wynn says.

CHALLENGES IN APPLYING US MODELS TO AUSTRALIA

Wynn cautions that cultural differences  mean that applying US alumni engagement models directly to Australia isn’t likely to work.

“One of the things I haven’t seen here at UQ, compared to something like the University of Virginia, is that everyone’s walking around in UVA T-shirts, UVA sweatshirts, UVA hats, UVA paraphernalia like coffee cups,” says Wynn.

“I haven’t seen that here, in my observation. In the nine months I have been here, I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of students I’ve seen in UQ paraphernalia. When I first started here I asked what are the school’s colours. It was maroon or purple, depending on who I asked, but it’s not clearly defined.”

BUILDING ALUMNI ENGAGEMENT AT UQ

With the differences between Australian and US universities in mind, Wynn has been developing programs that apply the disciplines of American alumni and class engagement programs at UQ.

“We’re looking at whether we can start a class giving program while the students are here. The focus is not on big dollars, the focus is on them giving anything. And then, after they graduate, finding ways that we can bring them together,” Wynn says.

“Because that kind of alumni engagement doesn’t exist here, I don’t think trying to create something across UQ or across a faculty will work. We’re going to start small across a particular program and use a small cohort as a test group and scale up from there.

“I’m looking at a parent engagement program for our Bachelor of Advanced Finance and economics students. A lot of the students come from the private school system, so presumably their parents would be familiar with educational philanthropy,” says Wynn.

Wynn’s goal is to create a culture of philanthropy at UQ. The idea is that planting seeds and getting students in the habit of giving from day one will one day yield fruit. But it’s likely to be a long-term exercise. “Right now we don’t have a pipeline. We’re discovering people all the time who have the capacity but haven’t given anything in 20 years, but we’re not going to go from zero to major gifts overnight.”

REACHING OUT TO POTENTIAL DONORS

Because many potential donors in Australia haven’t been part of a long-term donor engagement program, reaching out to them requires a softer approach than Wynn would use on their US counterparts.

“Overall, there’s a greater awareness that universities fundraise in the US. Even if you go to a university that doesn’t do that much fundraising or isn’t that successful at it, you’re aware that they fundraise and why,” Wynn says. “I think there’s less of an understanding in Australia. I think sometimes there’s an additional step with alumni about why we’re having the conversation. Sometimes we need to make a start a few steps back around our role – what  we do and why we do it. Whereas in the US, in an initial visit I might get a lot further because they get why I’m there, they get alumni relations.”

Wynn’s initial approach is often by email and may not even mention fundraising. “For the most part it’s a short email that says: ‘I’m reaching out to alumni and I’d like for you to come down to talk.’ The question I always ask is: ‘How has your engagement with UQ impacted the trajectory of your career? I’d like your alumni perspective on some of the things that are happening at UQ that you might not be aware of’,” Wynn says.

INSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES

While university fundraisers in Australia typically use government funding cuts to higher education as a major pitch, Wynn suggests that pointing out the impact of the university’s research is usually a stronger narrative than asking potential donors to step in and fill the funding gap.

“What you really need to show is how you’re changing the game. Everyone gets that universities conduct research,” says Wynn, but they may not understand how important it is. “The view is that it’s just some faculty member who’s researching some obscure topic, but there’s no connection to the real world. We need some connection around how the research does impact the real world and examples. It’s about showing how things your university is doing, or is on the pathway to doing, is having a real-world impact on society. It’s showing how the dollars are having an impact and what they can be used for. It’s having a bigger narrative around impact.

“We can’t go back and correct for 20 years of no engagement, and we can’t sit around for another 20 years and wait for some of these new ideas to take hold. It comes down to telling better and more compelling stories and what cutting-edge programs are really worthy of philanthropy.”

UQ is in the midst of its first comprehensive philanthropic campaign, ‘Not if, when’. The goal is to galvanise the community and alumni to help raise funds for transformational impact.

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