University Advancement – The Opportunity to Make a Difference

In the second of our series of blogs based upon discussions with key participants in the Australian Higher Education Industry we speak with Michelle Macgregor Owen, Swinburne University’s Director of Advancement.  

Michelle has a wealth of experience in fundraising and development within the higher education sector and given the recent high profile philanthropic gifts to Universities we were interested in her views about the future of fundraising in Australia.

Philanthropy seems to have a high profile within the Higher Education sector in Australia at present, why is this so? 

The most obvious answer to this is that the federal funding model for higher education is increasingly impacting universities and as such they are looking to diversify their funding sources.  However this is not the only reason.  There is increasing recognition that education can genuinely make a difference in people’s lives and many donors have a genuine passion for education. 

As I keep reminding my colleagues, people do not give money to fill budget holes, they give money to make a difference and we within institutions need to develop ways in which supporters can do this.  Our ‘young mums’ program, which gives teenage mothers the chance to complete their education in a supportive environment, is a great example of this. Fundraising is not about just asking for money – it is about matching an individual’s passion with a university objective. 

The other thing is that success attracts success.  With $30 billion plus in reserves, does Harvard really need any additional donor funding? And yet it keeps attracting it.  The reason for this is that people are drawn by the great success story of an institution like Harvard and want to be a part of their programs. 

Why, compared with the rest of the world, does philanthropy still appear to be relatively under developed here? 

This might be partly true but we are definitely catching up quickly.  The last three to five years has seen a significant shift and a raising of the profile largely as a result of some ‘mega gifts’ in Australia – the likes of the Tuckwell and the Forrest donations ($50m to ANU and $65m to UWA respectively). 

Finally, we are starting to challenge the notion that Australians are not good philanthropists.  Australians have always been good at giving to people in need, it was perhaps that as a sector we did not demonstrate a good case for support.  I think that we are now really seeing people start to understand the opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives through education. 

Based on your experience, what are some common mistakes that institutions make when it comes to development or philanthropy strategies? 

I think the biggest mistake is just to focus on the monetary side of support.  Monetary gifts are important but people can also give in other ways, a contribution of their time and expertise to the institution is equally important. This is why I try and avoid the word ‘donor’ and use ‘supporter’. 

The other is the assumption that the fundraiser’s job finishes when the cheque is banked.  This is really only the start of the relationship. It is about developing an authentic relationship with the individual that is broader than just the fundraiser and is embedded within the institution.  A number of people need to be brought into the relationship so the individuals feels they have a strong link with the university and not just the fundraiser. 

The role of a Head of Development within a university can be misunderstood – how do you spend most of your time? 

I would probably describe it as ‘pulling the threads together’.  Part of it is research, engaging with possible donors and working out what it is about the university and what we do that really interests them.  Also, helping the institution to clearly articulate what the priorities are for funding and why, so that we can appeal to potential supporters. It’s not just about wining and dining people! 

What are some of the future trends within your area? 

Certainly in the future there will be a much greater focus on alumni and engagement with alumni as the basis of fundraising.  This requires establishing a clear, mutually beneficial value proposition for engagement and to show genuine authenticity. 

The explosion of online giving is something that will change what we do and we are already seeing this in terms of things like crowd funding.  People want to give online and through multiple channels and we need to facilitate this. 

Finally, I also think as institutions we need to work more on understanding our supporters.  It is important to understand what drives our donors and how this impacts their support.

About Michelle Macgregor Owen

Michelle is an advancement professional managing the strategic directions of the alumni and fundraising programs at Swinburne University of Technology, overseeing and contributing to philanthropic initiatives, donor stewardship and alumni engagement programs. She says she is fortunate to work with a terrific group of dedicated staff in the Alumni & Development Office.

Previously, Michelle was a senior fundraiser at the University of Western Sydney. Prior to entering the university sector, Michelle spent 10 years in local government in economic development roles. Michelle has qualifications in business and marketing and is currently contemplating if she has the stamina to start a Masters in Philanthropy at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne. 

 Rohan Carr
November 2014

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