Most of the intended audience for this report are very familiar with the alumni relations and fundraising sectors in higher education.

However, for those new to either alumni relations or fundraising, I felt the need to provide a brief introduction.


Most higher education institutions around the world have a function associated with the further development of the institution. This department often covers partnerships, fundraising (corporate, major gifts, legacies, trusts/foundations, “annual” or “regular” giving), and interfaces into operations and finance at the central institution, whilst remaining otherwise relatively separate from the academic, research or student side of the institution’s remit.

There are some significant differences worth noting between institutions. For example, here are four key properties of organizations which have a significant impact on their overall “advancement” programme:

  • fundraising and research are closely aligned – as specific new capital projects such as research labs and buildings become priorities for an institution
  • a separate and pseudo-independent foundation exists through which some or all fundraising activity is delivered
  • a separate and pseudo-independent alumni association exists with a specific remit on coordinating alumni networks
  • a “federated” structures exist, with several institutions sharing a common pool of alumni, and dividing up access appropriately (or inappropriately) to it

In almost all cases, Advancement/Development either contains – or needs to work closely with – both Alumni Relations and to a lesser extent university Marketing teams.

It’s also worth noting that there are substantial terminological differences between the US and UK here. “Advancement” is a term rarely used in the UK, whereas it’s common in the US, and often covers a slightly broader remit. “Development” is used widely in the UK to refer to fundraising and alumni relations. “Annual” and “Regular” giving are also terms which largely mean the same thing, and the difference in definition between the US and UK definitions has narrowed recently.

Historically, there is a perception that in the US, people are less willing to commit to monthly recurring gifts – and prefer to give once a year, “annually”. This is assumed to be because in the UK, Direct Debit makes this easier to arrange and more of a cultural norm across charitable giving.

In this report, I have chosen not to focus in depth on corporate relationships, major gifts, legacy giving, or trusts/foundations, which often have dedicated and separately resourced teams focusing on them. In my recommendations, I talk about breaking down some of these silos in the future.

Focus area: Alumni Relations

Typically, a component of an advancement or development strategy will be creating and maintaining a strong relationship with alumni of the institution. There is an assumption that these are good relationships to foster both for the networks of alumni and for the ability to fundraise from alumni in the future – for which a strong existing relationship is a significant benefit.

Alumni relations typically covers everything from events, seminars, lifelong learning, alumni meetups/groups, reunions, magazines and newsletters, careers and mentoring. It is often seen as a department responsible for most or all communication with alumni.

Beyond this, it is hard to generalize. I look in more depth at the relationship between the structuring and purpose of these departments, their goals and objectives, and the implications for digital here. A significant lack of clarity about the purpose of alumni relations is one of the deep-seated challenges the sector faces.

Focus area: Annual/Regular Giving

This is the practice of asking for relatively small gifts periodically from (normally) alumni. Amounts vary significantly, as do giving patterns. The causes to which people are asked to give vary enormously – from “unrestricted” (can be used for any purpose), bursaries/scholarships, to things as specific as a particular piece of equipment, club or society.

It is important to include Annual/Regular Giving in our look at the sector, as it often needs to work in lock-step with Alumni Relations and any Foundation or Alumni Associations that exist to be effective.

Annual/Regular Giving includes posting direct mail solicitations, running telephone-based annual (or sometimes year-round) fundraising campaigns, occasional events and reunions centred around fundraising, and the vast majority of online solicitation via email or social media.


Before going further, it’s useful to talk briefly about the typical methodology used by an advancement or development office. Naturally, each is different – in structure, focus, and approach – but they share a common underlying set of assumptions and methodology, which are worth mentioning below.

Most offices work on the fairly reasonable assumption of a pipeline of potential donors. Students start with the experience of the institution, and gradually through life, a certain percentage of them will engage more closely with the institution. Some will become wealthy – and the institution will regularly research the database to identify these potential prospects. Some will not – but can contribute in increasing ways to the life of the institution through networks, careers development and mentoring. Others still will give annually, and potentially leave a legacy at the end of their lives.

Annual or Regular Giving teams, coupled with Alumni Relations, are responsible for the earlier stages of this pipeline. They initiate and cultivate relationships between the alumni and the institution. Those at the lower level of value in either monetary or partnership terms remain in the remit of those teams; those who give more or can influence more greatly tend to get handed on to major or legacy giving teams, or corporate relationships teams respectively.

The reason for this quick elucidation is to demonstrate the importance of the Annual/Regular Giving teams, and Alumni Relations teams. Without these, there would be no relationships.

Without these relationships, giving would die, and global influence would be stifled.

It is specifically the way these teams are embracing the new medium of digital in the work they do – and the huge opportunities and challenges it brings –  that is the focus of my research.

Read on for The Nature of Digital.