Stephen Pidgeon: Let's listen to varsity fundraisers

It's sad that different types of fundraisers don't learn more from each other, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

At the end of August, I spoke at the Case Europe annual conference - it stands for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

At a stunning venue in Manchester, a converted railway station, university marketers and fundraisers gathered from all over Europe. There were 900, the event's highest number by far, with two-thirds of them from the UK.

I knew nothing of this alternative pool of UK fundraisers, all doing what I've been doing for so long: persuading people to part with their money for some greater good. But they do it so differently - sometimes better than we do; other times, worse.

How sad that we don't learn more from each other. Of course, large sections of the programme were about recruiting students and showing off the university's academic pedigree. But there was a whole track on alumni relations. Could charity fundraisers imagine a track on donor relations? Most fundraising conference programmes are stuffed with technique-driven sessions describing how to screw more money out of donors.

Then there was the whole area of major donor fundraising. At July's Institute of Fundraising Convention in London, there were sessions with quaint names such as Engaging Major Donors With Your Charity, but not many. At this Case conference, relationships with major donors infiltrated virtually every session.

Beth Breeze's Million Pound Donor Report clearly shows the impact. More million-pound donations went to higher education in 2010 than to charities in health, international aid, human services and welfare, environment and animals combined. Higher education is brilliant at winning big money. Cambridge and Oxford Universities have recently completed billion-pound campaigns; King's College, London is confident of reaching its half-billion-pound target.

Why don't we invite these folk to talk at our conferences, instead of having endless technique-driven sessions? Far too many of these focus on digital as if it was the solution to all problems. Let me remind you: Blackbaud tells us online giving in 2010 (the year Haiti broke all online giving records) still accounted for only 7.6 per cent of US voluntary income.

Could they help us answer the question of what higher education gives to major donors that charities apparently fail to match? Let us have sessions, like they did, on Leadership Giving Groups or Working With Major Gifts Volunteers.

Of course, they don't do everything right. Their individuals fundraising, mostly limited to single channels, is still in the dark ages. There was a quaintly named session Understanding Success in Regular Giving - I've not seen a session like that for five years, anywhere. And another on The Spectrum of Stewardship. Perhaps charity fundraisers should go back to these basics - many are still contacting most of the supporter file.

But let's start working together; we could both learn such a lot from each other.

Stephen Pidgeon is chair of Tangible and the Institute of Fundraising's standards committee

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