Genuine partnerships: practical tips to build university philanthropy

19 March 2018

University philanthropy can profoundly enhance our impact in the world.

It now supports a wide array of additional activities at Australian universities – from life-changing scholarships through to critical funds for research to cure disease and improve our quality of life.

But building a philanthropic capacity at each university takes time and skill – and a keen insight into how to establish and nurture donor relationships to deliver the greatest impact and benefit.

In this edition, leaders who have sat on either side of the philanthropy table share practical tips and observations about the ingredients needed for successful philanthropic partnerships.

Together they build a picture of how to approach this work, and offer valuable insights for university advancement, development and engagement teams, as well as institutional leaders.

Communicate often, evaluate keenly, demonstrate impact

Ms Lin Bender AM, Chief Executive, Helen Macpherson Smith Trust

As the Chief Executive of a testamentary Trust that distributes between $4-5 million per annum, a grant seeker with over 30 years experience and a current member of University of Melbourne Humanities Foundation Board, Lin Bender has a deep knowledge of philanthropy success.

One of her top tips is to avoid the temptation to send out blanket applications to a wide array of funders with very different goals and criteria for awarding grants.

All funders are different. They may be restricted by highly specific funding criteria, or by a defined geographic location, so it’s crucial to understand those parameters and tailor your pitch.

Although that may sound like more work — it can lead to a far greater success rate.

“Our differences are to your advantage," she says. "Because universities, more than any in the not-for-profit sector, have the broadest range of funding opportunities. And you’re the powerhouses of research and can identify the right funder for a particular project.”

Another key tip is to build greater capacity to evaluate the impact of a grant or gift — and report that back to granting bodies in a timely way.

This not only helps donors to report and acquit grants — and makes it more likely they will give again in future — but also assists universities to tell the story of their philanthropic impact to other potential donors.

Building a strong advancement and engagement team is essential to manage the traffic of applications, reporting, acquittals and nurturing relationships with donors throughout the process.

“Universities have an impressive track record in securing major capital gifts, legacy grants, scholarships, research grants. Universities have gravitas – and are regarded as reliable stewards of our major gifts,” she observes.

But universities are increasingly pitching for translational research projects in partnership with community organisations. These projects are competing with other not-for-profit organisations with a stronger track record of managing complex, multi-stakeholder projects with multiple donors.

In that context, universities need to highlight how they would manage the ongoing stewardship of a project if key staff were to leave the university, provide fine-grain detail in project budgets, and outline other confirmed partners in the project — rather than just prospective partners.

Ms Bender says major universities now have sophisticated processes for reporting on perpetual gifts, with excellent annual stewardship reports, and these could be extended to all evaluation reports.

Regular and good quality communication with funders is also a crucial tip.

“Maintain contact with your funder before, during and after your grant. Don’t just contact us with good news, or when a report is due. We’re on your side,” she notes.

A system of quality control for all grant applications and reports, collaboration across faculties, and maintaining a record of all funding applications — including a strong evaluations system — can help to bring greater quality and consistency to philanthropy asks across universities.

This can also help to build an evidence bank to demonstrate how a grant for a project can reduce harm in the community — demonstrating the value of prevention as well as cures.

“As a medium-sized funder, we look for ways to work smarter and maximise our impact, and to align ourselves with organisations, and with fellow funders, who share our aspiration,” Ms Bender says.

“Because we want to build a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than funding the ambulance at the bottom.”

Give strategically, FOCUS ON IMPACT, work collaboratively

Mr Craig Connelly, Chief Executive Officer, The Ian Potter Foundation

With a career in investment banking prior to becoming CEO of the Ian Potter Foundation, Craig Connelly considers the potential impact of any philanthropy grant application.

One of his top tips for grant applicants to is embed evaluation upfront in your applications — and demonstrate your commitment to evaluate the impact of grants.

The Ian Potter Foundation was one of the first in Australia to appoint a full-time research and evaluation manager. They also publish a list of preferred evaluators as part of their transparency measures.

“Plan for success – include evaluations in all of your budgeting,” Mr Connelly says.

Mr Connelly says the United States — arguably the birthplace of higher education philanthropy — has many lessons that can be adapted by Australian universities.

One is the US trend in more recent years to move away from short-term grants and towards more collaborative partnerships between funder and recipient, as the Ford Foundation has done.

In the US, the first 12 months of a five-year grant are now often used as an assessment period to secure the rest of the funds.

In line with that trend, the Ian Potter Foundation’s average grant has expanded from 10 months to nearly 30 months. General operating support is also now a key component for every major grant.

Another key tip is to focus heavily on the community impact that will flow from a proposed grant.

“We won’t fund research for research’s sake… translation is critical. Funders want to understand your capacity to influence or shape real outcomes. We achieve our mission through you,” he says.

As just one example, the Ian Potter Foundation supports the ANU’s Sustainable Farms Initiative to improve biodiversity in Australia’s farms and farm management practices.

Not only has this brought together several schools across the ANU, but it has fostered partnerships with organisations such as Landcare to extend the impact of the program on the ground.

“It highlights to me that where universities are prepared to really look at their structures and how they engage internally and develop external-facing and impactful projects, you can turn that around.”

A key to success is being both nimble and visionary — being able to bring together different people and groups across a university — and thinking big about what changes can be made.

Universities shouldn’t be afraid to think big, and to ask for long-term funding to address real-world issues, he says.

“The challenge for universities, I think, is effective internal university communication between institutional, academic and advancement teams, and managing your philanthropic relationships.”

Universities need to be bold, have good governance on projects, and engage well externally.

They also need to pitch the right projects to each prospective donor that match the donor’s interests and priorities — and not be afraid to have an ambitious vision.

“Universities genuinely can lead the world in effectively tackling some of mankind’s most challenging issues. So be bold.”

Playing to our strengths and reflecting the story of our communities

Ms Rebecca Hazell, Director of Advancement, The University of Newcastle

Just a few years ago in 2014, the University of Newcastle had fewer than 300 donors.

Now with a small team, Newcastle's Director of Advancement Rebecca Hazell has grown that number to more than 1,500.

It all began with better aligning the university’s work in advancement, engagement and philanthropy with its community; working out how to tell its own stories and how it can make a difference.

“Philanthropy is not new to the University of Newcastle. In fact, we were formed by the community, for the community, in 1965," Ms Hazell says.

Until recently, most gifts from the community were scholarships and prizes to support local students, and only a very small number of alumni were donors.

In 2014, the university adopted a more strategic and proactive approach to relationship-building. Advancement became a university-wide responsibility. And thanks to both internal stakeholders and external supporters, philanthropic income has grown almost 200 per cent in just four years.

Ms Hazell and her team focussed on increasing the visibility of philanthropy at the university, highlighting the many ways in which it connected with the community.

“It was important to tell that story to our community, so when they might think about making a difference through a significant gift, they might actually see the university in that way.”

The university has 142,000 alumni, the majority of whom are based in the Hunter region.

Until recently, however, the number of alumni donors was small. Alumni now make up half of the university's donor base.

“We have become more donor-centred. We have focussed on aligning the interests of our donors to our strengths.”

With a focus on collaboration and partnership in philanthropy, last year the university raised a record amount, of which one-third was for research projects.

This has come through building internal connections, improving grant processes, and improving relationships with donors.

Peer-to-peer fundraising activities have also encouraged staff to see fundraising as a worthy activity.

Her team has partnered with the university's research office to think about the difference between peer-reviewed research grants and philanthropic grants.

They have also partnered with faculty to connect donors with the people they really want to connect with — both students and academics.

These activities paved the way to prepare the university for major gifts, including the $26 million Ma and Morley Scholarship Program. The program itself was 20 months in the making – inspired by a childhood friendship between Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma and the local Morley family.

“That announcement was made to a packed audience of university donors, alumni, and nearly 200 high school students from our local communities, who will probably never forget that moment."

"The confidence that’s been built across the university in our ability to receive, partner and manage large gifts has really been quite extraordinary, and I’m delighted to have been able to be there for that moment, because it’s something I think will never leave me.”

Australian universities and philanthropists partnering to save mother’s lives

Associate Prof Michelle McIntosh, Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University

A grant of just $19,000 sparked an Australian university project to prevent the leading cause of childbirth-related deaths worldwide.

It began a decade ago, when a student from Botswana – travelling on an AusAID scholarship to work on his Masters – was assigned to Associate Professor Michelle McIntosh’s team at Monash.

“It was a pivotal time for me as an academic to get $19,000, and it made a really big difference,” Associate Professor McIntosh says.

That $19,000 grant helped to source the main ingredients of a spray-dry version of oxytocin — a drug which prevents and treats excessive bleeding after childbirth. In developing countries, nearly 99 per cent of women in those circumstance die because a cheap injectable drug is not widely available.

Oxytocin is low-cost but requires refrigeration — and in a developing country, where women give birth at home or in poorly equipped medical centres, these can amount to life-threatening barriers.

With her team at Monash, Associate Professor McIntosh worked to develop a low cost, simple to use, heat-stable form of oxytocin to make it more accessible in the developing world.

Subsequent grants have allowed her and the Monash team to develop a spray-drying procedure, gather data to show its effectiveness, and progress it to first-stage clinical trials.

These grants and partnerships now measure in the tens of millions.

Among her top tips, Associate Professor McIntosh emphasised transparency with partners, and the importance of acknowledging challenges as they arise and asking for help and advice.

And the relationship doesn’t end when the funds stop — donors have invested emotionally as well as financially in the project, and they want to know how it’s progressing.

“It’s not just money you’re working towards when you’re working with your funding partners — it’s their experience and other areas they can support you in,” she says.

“The relationship doesn’t stop when you hand over the money and say thanks… that’s just the beginning.”

“I was given advice by a mentor of mine, and he said, ‘Take as many people with you on the journey as you can. Let as many people celebrate and enjoy the success.’ And that’s what we do with our funding partners.”

Partnerships and collaborations have continued to develop beyond the original scope of the project, including international and domestic partnerships on innovative medicines and drug manufacture.

“It’s like a ripple effect. This project itself is still ongoing, and we hope it will make a significant difference to healthcare in the world, but it’s already made a significant difference in the university.”

The university now has the HMS Trust Laboratory, an international standard laboratory that not only trains Monash students but is open-access.

As a result, the facility is available to researchers from other institutes, as well as start-ups and biotech companies, who may not be able to afford their own facilities.

Material for this article is drawn from insights shared in a session on philanthropy at the 2018 Universities Australia Higher Education Conference.