Historically, universities have been low key about seeking donations. Despite their publicity-shy approach and history of public funding, universities have always quietly relied on the generosity of donors to maintain growth. But this is changing.
Last year, Tony Blair promised to give £1 for every £2 donated to universities until July 2011. This has injected a renewed purpose and urgency into HE fundraising.
Cambridge University has created a public campaign to raise £1bn by 2012 in celebration of its 800th anniversary, and has already bagged £663m. Warwick University has also taken a bold step, unheard of so far among universities: it now asks for support on its home page.
What has this to do with the rest of the third sector? First, at the conference I spoke to many universities that plan to target parents and families rather than alumni in the coming years. One organisation said that when it told parents how important donations were for the health of the university, they were more than willing to give money on top of the existing expense of putting their child through higher education.
This could pose a direct threat to many charities in the current economic climate. Given the choice between supporting a charity and supporting the institution educating their kids, I imagine many donors will choose the latter.
Another potential risk to the sector is the migration of fundraising staff to universities. As several university development directors confided to me at the conference, their current staff don't have the skills to run large-scale public fundraising campaigns. As a result, their plans for 2009/10 include recruiting experienced fundraisers already working in charities.
I'm not saying higher education will poach staff, but university salaries are often higher than those in traditional charities. Not only do they pay more - they are also free of the negative image of the corporate sector.
I'm not trying to scaremonger. Higher education fundraising is still quite minimal: in 2004/05, universities raised £450m, compared with a whopping £27.6bn by charities in the same period. However, there is a risk that universities could soon become more aggressive in their fundraising, and they will have the financial backing and pressure to do it well.
Charities need to be prepared: a sleeping giant may be waking.
Dean Russell is digital marketing consultant at Precedent Communications.