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Create a culture of giving at your university


It’s one of the big questions that all universities are increasingly asking themselves. How do we stimulate and support a culture of giving within our institution?

There are obviously a lot of components, and it would be disingenuous to oversimplify – there are no magic bullets. Culture is about how shared experiences can be developed, maintained and then nurtured into behaviour. Giving programs that rely on this culture therefore need to develop student experience, embed an understanding of the way an institution works, and carve out a hallowed place in the hearts and minds of the young people who pass through their doors.

Inevitably, this requires a lot of time and investment. But there are some simple things you can do today to help enhance your current strategy.

Understand and Engage

The best giving cultures develop when there is a clear understanding of the relationship between students, alumni, staff and the institution. In recent years, with the huge increases in fees in the UK, this relationship has changed, as students increasingly understand the university as a supplier, rather than a partner; and vice versa – the relationship has become more commercial.

This relationship is key: it defines not just current but also lifelong future perspective. In the US, tuition fees have long been higher than they have in the UK. However, there is a considerably more developed giving culture than in the UK, despite the high fees. Why? Well, one reason might be that since many students have benefitted themselves from paying “reduced fees” due to scholarships and bursaries, they feel more inclined to ensure the next generation can benefit in the same way. This opens up some interesting questions about how we can better communicate the value of higher education, and build stronger bonds with the student base.

Moving this into the 21st century means looking at involving students and staff in creating digital giving programs and using social media to help an institution’s members and students to become the ambassadorial voice of the institution.

Inspire Students

In the past 15 years we have seen the likes of JustGiving and more recent competitors dominate the digital giving landscape. JustGiving uses a model of peer-to-peer giving, where those wishing to support a charity will, for example, run a marathon or go on a bike ride, encouraging their friends and family to sponsor them with donations that go to the charity in question. Because of the close connections between those doing the “challenge” and the donors, there is a much higher rate of giving than there would have been had the charity simply asked directly. The ability to relate to the individual and to feel a sense of being part of someone’s journey to undertake a challenging and rewarding task is a strong motivator for giving.

This mechanic is behind the reasoning for universities employing students to run their telephone lines during telethon campaigns. Critically, it also needs to be employed in digital giving strategies in much the same way as it is employed on JustGiving. If you wish to inspire someone to give the first time, they need to relate to the cause, and that means giving to someone or something that inspires them. The challenge with universities in particular is that students will not fundraise for their university as they would otherwise on JustGiving, because they do not currently perceive their institution as a nonprofit in need of support.

Whilst that latter fact – about how students relate to their institution – is something that will require substantial education and an entire program to engage students in better understanding institutional motivations and behaviour, we can short-circuit this process. Students may not yet believe that their university needs to receive philanthropic donations, but they do have their own projects, ideas and passions that they believe should be supported. This is where the “content goldmine” is – the inspirational hooks that encourage donors to give, and that set off the chain reaction of giving that universities – particularly in the US – currently depend on.


Imagine you were a student, looking to raise some money to support your passion – and that with the help of your university, you secured the funds from friends, family and alumni. Your association with the university and its community is a lot more powerful than it was before. You understand that the university is there to help you. You understand that alumni give to students, and that your project was only possible because of their support.

When you leave, you are a lot more likely to consider supporting the future generations.

Those links with future generations are vital to the universities, because they provide the university’s development and alumni relations teams with what they need the most – rich, pre-qualified donor profiles. This data is what drives most major fundraising initiatives, but creating and maintaining it can be an immensely expensive process for a small development office. Digital, social giving changes that – empowering students and staff to become the ambassadors of the institution, responsible for first-line contact and communication with alumni.

Build a Giving Community

If you get this right, the data provided by alumni and other supporters can help to create a much more donor-centric giving and engagement programme. The data is rich – often containing information that can help to convey a much deeper and more genuine connection to the institution.

This gives you all you need to invite people to join alumni associations in their region, to establish new ones where you see a particularly engaged community, invite business or social sector leaders to mentor current students, or to start engaging high net worth donors or corporate senior managers in your major giving programs.

By bringing this community online with digital activities such as crowdfunding or giving days, you can also start to engage with your supporters quicker than may have previously been possible.

For more information about building a culture of giving for your institution, get in touch at

Jonathan May

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