Highlights from the Purplegrass – Mira Partnership Study Trip, September 2015

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A £3 billion sterling campaign, an opera house that lost its Chairman, Chief Executive and Artistic Director in a matter of months and raising money for Assyriology and Numismatics. 

I was delighted to be joined last month by fundraisers from the Abbey Theatre, Blackrock College and Educate Together on a recent study trip to Oxford and London, organised by Purplegrass and colleagues from the Mira Partnership international association of fundraising consultants.

The trip was put together to explore some leading examples of fundraising within the education and cultural sectors in the UK and was attended by fundraisers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, the UK and Ireland.

We began our trip at the University of Oxford (now ranked second in the Times World University rankings), hearing first from Bill Conner who heads up fundraising at Wolfson College, Oxford.    From Bill we heard about his major donor strategy and his systematic approach to identifying potential major donors and really spending time with them to understand their interests and priorities when it comes to funding the college.  Given some of the highly specialised post-graduate courses available at Wolfson (eg Numismatics – the study or collection of coins, banknotes or medals) Bill worked with the academic departments to develop Research Clusters and has been successful in matching donors with specific research fields, within these clusters.

Wolfson has also developed some interesting, new approaches to alumni fundraising and donor acquisition, including a crowdfunding appeal and an alumni social media campaign on the Funderful platform, developed by an interesting team based in Riga.  (Check out  www.itsfunderful.com ).

We also heard from Liesl Elder, the Director of Fundraising for the University of Oxford  – a challenging role given the collegiate nature of Oxford University and the fact that all 43 colleges are also fundraising for themselves. Liesl is leading the Oxford Thinking campaign, a monster campaign which she took on in 2011 when she joined.  Oxford Thinking was originally a £1.25 billion campaign, launched in 2008. By 2011, the campaign had already raised £1 billion and given its success, the campaign was relaunched with a new £3 billion target and a cleaner, simplified strategy (the campaign originally had 571 priorities!!).

Once you recover from the eye-watering targets, what really struck me about this campaign and about Liesl herself was the really clear thinking behind the strategy. She takes an extremely pragmatic approach to the “sharing out” of fundraising between colleges and the university, refusing to get sucked into the politics of who owns which donor, setting out clear guidelines and almost always conceding for the greater good of the campaign when there were disputes.  The development team have team targets, not individual targets, which, according to Liesl, works towards a more unified approach across the fundraising team (around 100 fundraisers in total).

You might say – well it’s Oxford University, so if they can’t raise money on that scale then no-one can. But until recently, no one in the UK was. Not even Oxford themselves.

In 2013/14 Oxford raised £204 million, £7 million more than Cambridge (the next highest fundraising university in the UK) and exponentially higher than the average of £14.4 million, raised by the other Russel Group universities (a group of the top 24 universities in the UK).

Eight years ago, the Oxford colleges were raising just 50% of what they are raising today.

And today 25% of all gifts come from non-Oxford alumni.

When asked about  why she felt the campaign had been so successful, Liesl stressed the importance of building a clear brand around the university and clearly valuing the power of this brand.  She also talked about building a track record of success in order to establish credibility within the university hierarchy.  The Development team at Oxford has succeeded in doing this and philanthropy has become  an integral part of the university’s overall strategy. Liesl has an hour a week with the Vice Chancellor of the University and he spends around 10% of his time on fundraising, clearly demonstrating the commitment that Liesl and her team have built up across the university towards fundraising.  No coincidence then that this new approach towards philanthropy has coincided with Oxford climbing up the University World Rankings to second place.

The second day of our study trip we headed into central London,  where we visited the wonderful English National Opera and the English National Ballet. For those not familiar with the ENO, it is the second national opera company in the UK (after the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and performs all its operas in English. This is a hugely well regarded and well established company and its home, the Coliseum is close to the hearts of many Londoners, standing proudly at the edge of Trafalgar Square. The company has gone through a tumultuous  year,  losing its Chairman, Chief Executive and Artistic Director in quick succession, following internal squabbles and highly publicised clashes of opinion.  Their new Director of Development Chris Martin (not the frontman of Coldplay, but very impressive nonetheless) was sanguine about the situation, remarking that he saw this only as a new opportunity for donors to be able to play a part in the future of the ENO.  He stressed the importance of myth-busting quickly and clearly and even joked that a desire to hear the gossip from backstage at the ENO could sometimes even open doors and work in his favour!  The central tenant of his fundraising strategy, which was echoed by Alyssa Bonic, the Corporate Fundraising Manager with the English National Ballet, was to be true to what you are as an organisation. For the ENO, it was important for them to forge a clear brand strategy and not to try to be a second Royal Opera House.   Where Covent Garden is traditional, the ENO is new and edgy, and focused on nurturing new talent.  They are also using their home, the Coliseum theatre itself to support their fundraising more and more, capitalising on its huge appeal and also drawing on their large company of resident artists, to ensure that donors can meet the artists, see the sets and even have lunch on the vast stage itself!

The English National Ballet similarly has done a great job in using all of its assets to build donor support.  The dancers do workshops for company supporters, private performances and have even tested a new sports clothing range for leading sports and dance brand, Sweaty Betty.

Our tour ended at the Museum of London, which has offered a host of ideas for donor inspiration and donor recognition. You could buy a year of London’s history and a special plaque on the handrail running around the museum displayed the various donors within this programme. The Museum has also launched a new campaign to raise £4 million a year that will allow the Museum to reach out to every school child in London and consolidate their already impressive collection.

For me the trip was hugely valuable, sparking some new ideas and reminding myself of the importance of looking up and out to see what other fundraisers are doing out there, and how they are overcoming some of the challenges that are common to all of us as fundraisers.

Thank you to everyone who took part and to all those fundraisers who were so generous in sharing their own experiences with us.