Posts like this one from Mark Phillips on Social Media in Numbers have me worried. To tantalise you with a few facts:

  • YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine.
  • 78% of consumers trust peer recommendations. 14% trust advertising.
  • 24 of the world’s largest 25 newspapers have declining circulations

I work in the higher education sector, in a successful Development Office which has been established for over two decades. We are really good at major gifts. We look after and respect our donors. We have an annual fund which is steadily improving and our legacy programme alone brings in an average of £2 million every year.

Major charities seem to be losing donors, whilst philanthropic income to the UK higher education is increasing.

So HE fundraisers have nothing to worry about, right?

Well maybe.

Five years ago I was a major gifts fundraising in the voluntary sector. As a fundraiser in the voluntary sector, I was aware of constant innovation. SMS – can we use it? Will it make money? Can we engage more people? Have chuggers had their day? What’s the next thing? How can we trial it? How can we combine fundraising with campaigning? How can we carry the message? Is our brand consistent?

There was considerable focus on donor acquisition and retention, with direct marketing and membership remaining the backbone of my charity’s income. On a quick mental count, I would say that in 2006 my charity – a medium sized operation with a philanthropic income of over £12 million -had a minimum of twelve different types of fundraising/income generation in the fundraising mix.

In contrast, my current university has a similar philanthropic income, but a maximum of seven different income streams (trust, corporate, major gifts, reunion/event fundraising, legacies, annual fund). Instead of looking at the distant horizons of fundraising innovation, we focus on getting better at what we do best and operating at our optimum level.

Recent experience has shown me that innovation is happening in UK Higher Education Advancement circles, but is seems to be primarily in the area of alumni relations. One colleague’s focused programme of new media activity, combined with a strategic events programme is yielding significant results. Alumni are flocking to join LinkedIn and engage in Second Life. Participation in a virtual world is leading to participation in the physical realm. Facebook makes is simple for new graduates to remain a part of their student society. The programme is resulting in business angels for university spin outs, in the development of industry networks and mentoring programmes. Datasets are enriched by alumni volunteering their details.

There is a challenge here, for higher education fundraisers to pick up the baton and build on what our colleagues are developing.

A survey of the voluntary sector by NFPSynergy tells us that in 2008, the following numbers of charities described web presence as very beneficial for fundraising:

  • 16% of charities with a turnover of less than £1 million
  • 24% of charities with a turnover of £1-£10 million
  • 45% of charities with a turnover of more than £10 million (averaging over £37 million per annum)

What does this signify?

If nothing else, it suggests that the larger charities raising the most money seem to be making the most of their online opportunities.

As Mark’s post suggests, social media grows ever more powerful and influential. We would be wise to pay attention to that fact.

As we continue in a recession and competition for the pound in our pockets becomes ever fiercer, the charity and the higher education sector may have much to learn from each other here.

If you are interested exploring this area further, check out this article from last year’s Times Higher Education Supplement and a fascinating report from Nonprofitnext on Five Key Trends that Will Shape the Sector (US based), brought to you care of The Agitator blog.