By Andrew Harris, Executive Director of Campaigns, Aston University
In 2012 Aston was looking ahead to 2016 and the 50th Anniversary of the award of our Royal Charter. The University was keen to celebrate this milestone, and also to use this as a platform to launch a major capital campaign. £50m for 50 Years had a ring to it, and this was already the stated ambition by the time the new development director arrived in August 2013.
It was very clear that the institution was starting from a low base in terms of the fundraising team size and capability, plus prospect identification, a history of giving and active networks. What Aston did have was willing institutional leadership, some exciting projects (most notably the launch of a Medical School), a great deal of warmth to the institution from within the West
Midlands and an alumni body which included a number of extremely successful individuals who credited this success to their Aston education.
We needed to address two main challenges. Firstly, to gain any credibility and to be able to build momentum and stories to tell by the launch in April 2016, we had to find a way to get out and see as many of our leading alumni as possible, catalyse the relationships and to get
people supporting. The university was quick to agree a staged five-year investment plan to increase from 3 to 17 people in the Development and Alumni Relations team, but
we still needed more capacity to help initiate and develop as many relationships as possible.
Secondly, we had to build the brand of the University among our target audience, and a wider network. Aston has a remarkable history, some great academic centres and unique offerings - for instance we are the only university in the UK to have a Regius Professor of Pharmacy – but as a smaller institution outside of the Russell Group our profile is lower, particularly beyond our region. In light of this, trying to talk to those individuals and companies who had not traditionally had a relationship with Aston was challenging.
We addressed these challenges by building a committed base of lay-leadership who would come together in Board structures and help us tactically by making approaches and attending prospect meetings, both with Aston development staff and solo. These volunteers expanded our reach and capacity and because of the status of the individuals on the board (CEOs and chairs of household names), they gave us instant credibility in our approaches and particularly with businesses.
Between 2014-17 the team put in place four volunteer boards with a total of 28 members – the main campaign board that oversaw all activity and made approaches to alumni nationally and internationally, a board focussed on relationships in the West Midlands, a business board who would help us develop relationships with corporate partners, and a US Foundation. We were grateful for the leadership of alumni like Dr Tony Hayward, Chairman of Glencore; Dr Matthew Crummack, CEO of GoCompare and to Dr Farhan Sharaff, Chief Investment Officer, Guggenheim Partners.
Getting the right people in place to lead the boards was crucial, as was being clear with the membership that where we needed the assistance was primarily with the practical approaches rather than the advice and strategy.
By the 2016 campaign launch milestone we had increased philanthropic giving ten-fold from 2012, had four times as many donors giving annually and had a committed volunteer structure.
As well as increasing traditional giving, our boards have helped us grow other income streams for the University. In 2017 Aston graduated the first degree apprentices in the UK with CapGemini, and with the advent of the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017, we needed to capitalise on our first-mover position quickly. By using the business board and their networks, we were able to get in front of the executive-level at some of the leading apprentice-levy payers in the Midlands and beyond. This was extremely successful, with companies commissioning bespoke ‘closed-cohort’ executive MBA programmes for their teams, or funding staff to take part in open cohorts of programmes run by Aston Business School and the Aston Professional Engineering Centre.
Development and Alumni Relations is now targeted on a broader definition of ‘income’ which reflects the true value brought to Aston through the network of alumni and friends of the University. This includes not only philanthropy, but also transactional income (coming from Degree Apprenticeships and research contracts for example), and investment income in our spin-out activity - another area where our volunteer boards have been leading conversations.
In 2019, Aston is a place which recognises the great opportunity a community of alumni offers across the University. Alongside the development of an experienced and committed team and comprehensive fundraising and alumni relations programmes, the volunteer Boards have been instrumental in placing Aston in a position where we have some great stories to tell of alumni philanthropic and transactional income and involvement that touches every aspect of the