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How London South Bank University met the challenge of starting an annual fund from scratch

By Diane Webber-Thrush

Milena Boniek/Photoalto/Corbis

Ullysses Tucker likes a good challenge. After spending the first 20 years of his career working in media, he entered the development profession in 2000. He worked for the State University of New York Plattsburgh, New Jersey's Montclair State University, Louisiana's Grambling State University, and Western Illinois University before joining London South Bank University as head of individual giving in 2008.

At Western Illinois, he grew the annual giving program from $1.5 million to nearly $3 million, adding 5,000 new donors and nearly doubling the phonathon's revenue. Tucker has spent the past three years in London building an annual giving program for LSBU. CURRENTS spoke to him about the challenges he's faced in his position in England.

Tell me a little about London South Bank University.

While it has a very young development program, LSBU actually has a charter that's rooted in philanthropy. The institution traces back to an act of Parliament, the City of London Parochial Charities Act of 1883. We were created because the government recognized that it was mostly disenfranchised young people who needed to learn technical skills and trades, like baker and machinist, and they were not benefiting from apprenticeships. The initial investment was £150,000. A local philanthropist took the task upon himself to go find matching money to start a polytechnic institute.

We opened in 1892, and from there we've gone from a polytech/nursing school/bakery school to a university. We merged with two colleges and earned university status in 1992. LSBU's majority population is first-time college attendees of color. It's an urban campus with 25,000 students, mostly commuters. We have strong engineering, health, business, and built environment programs as well as the oldest bakery program in the country.

LSBU has a history rooted in philanthropy, but when the government writes you a check every year for operating costs, you don't have to fundraise. You become complacent. So that philanthropic history just sat on the table all those years.

And now the tables have turned.

Yes, historically the government has pretty much subsidized institutions here to the tune of 100 percent. You have a generation of students who attended college for free, but as you can see from the protests about tuition increases here recently, the game is changing. Government funding has decreased to about 60 percent in some cases.

In America, public institutions are used to getting 15 to 25 percent of their operating budgets from the government and making up the difference. Over here, that's a foreign concept. In fact, there was resistance when we started to raise money because academicians think that's the government's job. When I suggested a faculty-staff [giving] program, I got ridicule from the unions because they think, "That's the government's job; that's not your job. Why do you even exist to raise money?" Well, government funding has been reduced significantly; that's why we have to raise money.

When and how did development at LSBU come about?

The office is relatively new by U.K. standards. My development director has been here five years laying the groundwork. The prospect researcher arrived three years ago, and they hired me shortly afterward to establish the annual giving component. We hired a trusts and foundations person and major gifts officer within the last two years to complete the team.

The HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) program assisted universities that applied with grants to build development offices. From a strategic standpoint, the government knows it has to help teach universities to be more self-sufficient. The government's matching gift scheme also helps tremendously by enabling universities to earn another 50 percent of what they fundraise. This is essentially the backdrop of all fundraising efforts for many U.K. universities, including ours.

You have universities like Oxford and Cambridge that have been around for hundreds of years. They have alumni associations older than some of the universities in this country, and they've been at [advancement] for a long time. But the majority of U.K. universities got started as polytechnics or colleges. They're not used to raising money.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The biggest is that we're trying to raise money in a climate where people have never had to donate to the university, and we need to educate them about why their support is necessary.

Our current alumni association is only five years old. Our fundraising program officially launched in September 2008. We have 100,000 graduates throughout the U.K., China, and Asia, with a few scattered in the United States. And we only have about 35,000 good addresses. With the economic backdrop I've described and general lack of alumni engagement or historical economic support, that's the situation in which we have to make this work. Then there's the problem of the data.

What's the problem with the data?

The integrity of the data has been problematic. If you go years and years without engaging alumni, the relationship deteriorates and the data suffers. When we started calling [alumni] for the phonathon, a third of the numbers were disconnected or wrong. If the alumni were very engaged, chances are good that they would self-report. They don't, so we buy data, and it's often inaccurate. The privacy laws here are much stricter than in the United States, and companies in the U.K. similar to AlumniFinder do not have the same access to individuals' data.

Another example: We e-mailed an invitation for a law event to over 500 people whom we had graduated. We had 100 people open it and 50 people respond. So we've got to figure out: Do we have a primary e-mail address? Or is the message reported as spam? Or are recipients just disengaged?

The Royal Mail system is a lot different, too. In the United States, if you move from Washington, D.C., to Nebraska, the U.S. Postal Service is going to forward your mail for probably a year. Here you have to pay something like £50 to have your mail forwarded.

We've got to get people engaged enough to self-report and to trust that we won't misuse their information. They need to believe that we're truly trying to engage them in the life of the university.

But you have to be patient. I have colleagues in Nigeria. That country doesn't have the same infrastructure. Most of their graduates have cell phone numbers that could often change depending on which provider offers the best deal. There are no landlines. So we have it pretty good. Little steps.

As you speak, I'm reminded of community colleges in the United States, where there are vast numbers of alumni, but they haven't been tracked or engaged.

We're not dissimilar. LSBU's alumni association is just getting to the point of organizing the first real reunions of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. So we're starting to create events, gain visibility in the community, and invite people back.

There's also the common challenge of campus-based activities. We have less than 2,000 [residents] out of 25,000 [students], and most of the people staying on campus are international students. This area is like a ghost town on the weekends. Though we do our best to engage them through athletics, the student union, ambassadors program, and other activities, student life is not campus-centered like at most universities. Like community colleges, people usually come to their classes and leave.

As head of individual giving, what strategy has been most successful for you?

Our annual giving program is growing, but I swear by the phonathon. We launched officially in September 2008 after a three-month test during the summer. Even though there are a few established programs in the U.K., phonathons are a relatively new concept. So we used our alumni magazine and an e-mail blast to make our constituents aware of our intentions, because in many instances, telemarketing is frowned upon.

We put a lot of energy into constructing our narrative and designing a decent call center. So many schools outsource the phonathon, but it needs to be your front-line workers. We embrace students as our ambassadors and train them to talk about our successes.

The phonathon is personal, cost-effective, cheaper than direct mail, and does more than raise money. It's a good way to have an ambassador—even if you don't get the gift—share news and good feelings. We also can ask, "Are you receiving the alumni magazine?" We're updating information, without buying it. It's just a phone call. Last year, we spent less than £15,000 on labor and generated over £40,000, including the government match. But more importantly, we added 1,000 new donors. What we want to create is giving behavior.

We've paid one of our best callers about £900 over the past two years. She's raised more than £3,000 in that period with a fulfillment rate of nearly 70 percent. You're not going to get that kind of love from direct mail.

Did anyone need convincing about the value of the phonathon?

When I got here, they were prepared to send out a slick brochure to everybody they had a good address for: 35,000 pieces of mail. I said, "That's a waste of money and trees." They said, "That's how we do it over here."

I convinced them instead to do a test that summer. We took 10,000 phone numbers and 10,000 mailing addresses. Well, a third of the numbers were disconnected or wrong, but we ended up getting close to 450 gifts. That's just in that test before the phonathon even went live.

And the 10,000 pieces of mail?

The majority of them came back, and we got less than 10 gifts. We [now] do direct mail only for donor-centric purposes, such as donor publications and thank-you letters. We only send mail to people who are engaged, and we've saved a lot of money.

Overall, how has the annual fund been received at LSBU?

The annual fund has been received very well. We raised £250,000 last year, with gifts ranging from £5 to £50,000. Overall we've raised £1.5 million, which includes trusts, statutory funds, foundation giving, and major gifts. That's not bad for an upstart program in the U.K.

The main goal as we move forward is new acquisition, to grow the major gifts category, expand the faculty-staff giving program, and build better relationships with the many corporations in this country.

Any other indications that things are generally on course?

The other day I saw my first London South Bank University window sticker. The car almost hit me. Over here, you had better look right and look left before crossing the street. We gave the stickers to anyone who made a donation last year. When I first suggested the idea of window stickers, I was practically laughed out of the room. "We don't do that stuff here in the U.K. That's an American concept." When I saw that sticker, I thought, maybe this is catching on. Small victories.

There are some cultural elements that work against us. Charity is big here but handled very privately and not directed to education. This is a very generous culture when it comes to saving animals, abused children, and trees and supporting other causes. Yet unlike in the United States, people do not blow their own horn when it comes to giving. We had over 300 donors out of 1,000 who chose to be anonymous. That makes encouraging others to give a bit tougher. Then there are a few infrastructure issues that make things harder. It's one thing to raise money, but you have to have the intrastructure—receipting, depositing, transmitting, processes, procedures, and policies—to get it right. But the bottom line: We're getting it done.

Ulysses Tucker recently returned to the United States to direct annual giving at the University of Maine.

About the Author Diane Webber-Thrush

Diane Webber-Thrush is a former senior editor of CURRENTS.




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