PMA Consulting, LLC

An International Perspective

For most reading this blog post, topics related to philanthropy and nonprofit management are considered in the context of American standards and practices.  However, I wondered how the issues we face compare and contrast with advancement professionals in other countries.  I posed this question to my colleague Jennifer Garner who has experienced philanthropy on both sides of the Atlantic.  While her career began in the United States, Garner has spent the last two years as the successful Deputy Director of Development for King’s College London.

When I asked her to compare the two philanthropic environments, she said she had been “fascinated, impressed and challenged by by the world of philanthropy in the United Kingdom.”  While there is a culture of philanthropy and private support of the arts, medicine and education, the professional arena for fundraisers is a wide-open field.  University fundraising has existed as a profession only in the last 20 years, and for many universities only within the last 10 years has there been an alumni or development office with university-hired staff.  The way universities create communities for their alumni, staff and parents is a much newer concept than in the US and most English people feel that sweatshirt-branded alumni gatherings are a unique American experience.

A huge commonality between UK and US alumni relations is the strong connection between alumni and the lifetime friendships forged while at the university.  UK alumni are nostalgic about their college days and recall fondly their favorite professors and late night escapades, and typically attend university for 3 years and take classes solely in their undergraduate degree program, so their connections with their degree and departmental classmates are quite strong.  Reunions for departments work well and allow academics to showcase new teaching staff, facilities and research when alumni are back on campus.  Furthermore, alumni affinities with clubs and societies are sometimes stronger connections than class year or subject areas and provide great programming opportunities for alumni offices to do choir, theater and sport reunions.

However, the idea of alumni financially supporting their alma mater is a much newer concept.  Until 1998, UK students paid no fees to attend a university. Therefore, the American idea of student scholarships and supporting those who come after you is a new idea for British students and a sometimes foreign concept to alumni of UK institutions.  Universities did not historically keep alumni data and have not solicited alumni for annual gifts until recently.  The average rate of alumni giving in the UK is 2-4%, vs. 11-18% at US public institutions.  Cultivating constituents such as family members and staff as donors to the institution are only beginning to be explored by UK universities.  While the English give £8 billion a year in individual gifts to charities, gifts to higher education don’t rank in the top six categories.  Medical research leads the cause-related list with 40% of the population giving to medical charities.  This is followed by gifts to children/youth causes, hospitals, animals, disability and religious charities.  In comparison, the American equivalent of this list would read religious, education, health care, and then the arts.

One challenge facing UK universities is finding the best and most productive way to engage alumni and board volunteers.  Most universities do not have a vibrant and active alumni board that seeks to engage new alumni volunteers, support alumni events and encourage alumni giving.  Identifying alumni to serve on university boards of trustees is critical to gaining support and visibility for alumni relations and an active and healthy alumni association board can be the best advocate for a strong alumni relations program.

Garner posed an interesting idea to American advancement professionals.  ” I encourage development professionals looking for an international job challenge to consider fundraising in the UK.  There are numerous openings for experienced major gift officers and those in higher management posts.  The opportunity to build and expand a fundraising shop in a unique way and with a new model is an exciting challenge.  While the American model cannot simply be implemented in a “cookie cutter” fashion here, the best practices and experiences from America provide a good starting point for establishing a successful program in the UK.”