UCL Case Study: 'It's All Academic' Campaign

August 22, 2019 Louise Sparks

by Adrian Punaks, Executive Director of Development, UCL

When UCL prepared to launch its major new fundraising campaign, it thought hard about the target it should set itself – knowing that, as a world top 10 institution and one of the UK’s most successful fundraising univesities, it wanted to set its sights high with an ambitious but realistic figure.

In September 2016, the ‘It’s All Academic’ campaign launched with a major public event that declared the university’s intention to raise £600 million, one of the biggest philanthropic targets a European university had ever set.

Nearly three years later, It’s All Academic has surpassed the £500 million milestone a year ahead of schedule, and is expected to hit its target in 2020. What has driven the trajectory of this highly successful campaign?

Whole Institution Endeavour

The most successful fundraising universities are just that – fundraising universities, not universities with a fundraising office. UCL’s current campaign has a major focus on developing the mentality that philanthropy is a whole institution endeavour. This has included senior academic involvement through an Internal Campaign Steering Group, representing the whole
spectrum of UCL’s disciplines, set up at the start of campaign planning and responsible for developing the themes, goals, priorities and strategy of It’s All Academic.

It now continues to monitor, guide and develop the campaign, ensuring awareness, buy-in and increasing expertise in philanthropy amongst some of the advancement team’s most important stakeholders. This cross-university involvement also means that It’s All Academic is fully aligned with (and is a recognised enabler of) UCL 2034, UCL’s long-term strategy, further embedding philanthropy as a core ‘business as usual’ activity.

Alongside that has been a focus on building strong, collaborative relationships with key academic and professional services partners from campaign priority areas and developing their understanding of philanthropy. This reflects the fact that the entry point to an institution for potential supporters is often through a department, an academic or a clinician, who need to be able to spot a prospective donor and know when and how to involve the advancement office
– and, most importantly, have the confidence to do so.

Crucially, UCL is headed by a President & Provost, Professor Michael Arthur, who (as a CASE Trustee) is passionate about philanthropy and understands that it needs the time, involvement and endorsement of the institution’s leader to reach its full potential. His leadership structure is designed to give him space to focus on philanthropy and around 25% of his time is ringfenced for it. Philanthropists want to know that the work they are funding is an institutional priority; the
time and care that Professor Arthur gives those relationships is a crucial signal of UCL’s seriousness.

Internal Profile of Philanthropy

In advance of the launch of It’s All Academic, UCL also changed its senior management structure, promoting the development and alumni relations team from a department to a Vice-Provost’s Office, with communications and marketing joining that portfolio in 2018. This sent a clear signal about the significance of philanthropy to UCL, and boosted the profile and influence of the advancement team within UCL and externally.

Investment in the team has also increased (justified by one of the best ROI rates in the UK university sector), reflecting UCL’s understanding that sustainable long-term growth in philanthropy is built above all on a properly resourced, highly skilled and experienced team of advancement professionals.

“Change not Charity"

UK universities have traditionally viewed their alumni community as their most likely source of philanthropic support, but UCL is reaping the benefits of shifting its focus. Increasingly its major donors are now global philanthropists who do not necessarily have a personal connection to the university but are strategic, collaborational cause-led problem solvers looking for the best partners to pursue their ethos of “change not charity”. The catalyst of a major campaign
has undoubtedly increased UCL’s confidence to postion itself to these ‘mega-philanthropists’ as a natural partner to drive that change.

That does not, however, mean that alumni are not crucially important to UCL as donors, advocates, volunteers and friends. It’s All Academic is broadening UCL’s definition of philanthropy to recognise that there are many different ways of giving – in addition to the £600 million target, the campaign also aims to bank 250,000 volunteering hours.

Uniquely UCL 

In a competitive international environment, conveying distinctiveness is key to long-term philanthropic growth. The framework of a campaign was an opportunity for UCL to examine where it wanted to focus its philanthropic firepower, identifying those areas in which the university is genuinely world leading and where philanthropy can make the greatest strategic difference.

The profile, structure and narrative that resulted has driven a campaign that is uniquely and authenically UCL, growing donor relationships that are based on shared ambitions, visions and values.

Bridge to £1 Billion 

In talking about UCL’s current campaign, the word that comes up again and again is relationships. Philanthropy is not transactional – it is an activity based on passion and the drive to do good. The relationships that UCL is nurturing though this campaign – with academic and professional services colleagues, students and alumni, and philanthropic individuals and organisations globally – are the foundations on which it will build its bridge to a future £1 billion campaign.

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