Is Higher Education Fundraising Easier? Banner

Is Higher Education Fundraising Easier?

by Bill Weber

Co-Founder

Posted September 14, 2021

Have you ever heard that raising funds for higher education is “easier” than raising funds for human services, health, arts, social justice and the environment? Or as one pundit put it, “Higher education fundraising is a great place to work if you are a great fundraiser – and it’s a great place to work if you aren’t.”

Here are some arguments I’ve heard in support of this claim:

  • Higher education has built-in alumni and parent constituencies with a history of giving and long-term, established relationships with the institution.
  • Big fundraising results are there for the taking, as giving levels are already high.
  • More than most sectors, higher education leaders have traditionally been expected to make philanthropy a priority.
  • There is a sophisticated support system that includes structured training, access to rigorous data, collegial team support etc.
  • As higher education departments are relatively larger, they have more specialized expertise in planned giving, stewardship, technology, etc.
  • Higher education fundraising staff experience relatively generous benefits, including tuition reimbursement and extended summer vacations.
  • The pay is competitive.

While there may be some truth to these arguments, I think the takeaway is wrong. Higher education fundraising is not easy! As a consultant, I have met thousands of higher education fundraisers and have found that they are as hard-working and mission driven as fundraisers from all other sectors.

And while comparing nonprofit sectors in general can at times feel futile (whether because you feel “fundraising is fundraising” regardless of the industry or conversely, that sectors are so different from one another that it equates to comparing apples and oranges), I think we can still think about what makes fundraising for each distinct. So, let’s dig a little deeper to uncover the realities of higher education fundraising…

Not All Higher Education Institutions Are Alike

The size, resources, and makeup of alumni bases vary greatly among colleges and universities. Joe Bondi, who spent 15 years at George Washington University and is now the Senior Vice President at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, had this to say: “It’s virtually impossible to call one sector of nonprofits easier to raise money for than another. There are universities that raise a lot of money and, sure, it looks ‘easy’ from the outside. There are far more universities that have to scrape and claw for every dollar. Compare, for instance, the ease of raising money for a school that produces business leaders vs. one that produces K-12 educators. Both alumni groups may have equal inclination to support their alma mater, but broadly speaking, one has a greater capacity to do so than the other.”

Higher Education Fundraising Comes With Its Own Unique Challenges

Fundraisers in higher education are required to navigate a number of challenges, including but not limited to:

  • Chasing the transformational “unicorn gift” that will solve many of the institution’s strategic issues
  • Addressing centuries of systemic racism on and off campus, in ways that will create both immediate and long-lasting change
  • Understanding the motivations and expectations of the new breed of digital alumni
  • Grappling with increased competition for international donors, as well as declining alumni participation rates
  • Responding to political criticism about the size and use of endowments

And so on…

• • •

All things considered, perhaps it’s not so much that higher education fundraising is easier but that higher education fundraising is simply different  – and getting harder and harder!

• • •

Do you have any comments or questions on this topic? It would be great to hear from you. Please reach out to me at wweber@developmentguild.com.

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