Home > What we do > Funding and investment > Specific funds > Philanthropy and fundraising in UK higher education

Philanthropy and fundraising in UK higher education

The higher education (HE) sector in the UK has in recent years raised increasing income through philanthropy and fundraising. 

As the sector evolves, the challenges to effective fundraising become greater. This means that it is more important than ever for universities and colleges to recognise and apply best practice in this area.

Review of philanthropic support

To support this development, we commissioned the specialist fundraising consultants More Partnership to review the current state of philanthropic support for UK HE.   

The following summarises some of the key findings from the review.

The past ten years

The last ten years provide some revealing insights into the state of philanthropy in UK higher education. Notably, giving to universities has become more popular.

Figures show a steady rise in income through fundraising activities and a similar rise in the number of donors making both large and small donations.

Growth in these areas runs in parallel with a more professional approach to fundraising activities inside institutions.

The review also shows that investment and capacity building – such as HEFCE’s matched funding scheme for voluntary giving – consistently influences fundraising performance.

This picture indicates that many of the challenges that were set out in the 2004 report on increasing voluntary giving to higher education (known as the ‘Thomas Report’) have been met.

This also means that there are now substantially more good examples of fundraising and fundraising practice at UK universities.

Why donors give to higher education

Unpacking this picture of increased fundraising activity has also highlighted what motivates donors and its importance to a successful philanthropic mission.

Institutions are more likely to attract donations where potential donors can see their gift making a difference and it aligns with the institution’s academic mission. In contrast donors tend to see the main base of funding for the institution and its core educational activities as the Government’s responsibility.

So universities need to make a convincing case for charitable support focused on the real difference donations make to its students and the creation and use of knowledge. 

The power of personal experience

Leeds-born entrepreneur and philanthropist, Terry George, who left school without any qualifications, has given £20,000 for a new programme to encourage working class teenage boys in Leeds to consider a university education at Leeds Metropolitan University. 'The Aspire 2 Achieve programme is something I feel passionately about because it raises the aspiration of boys from similar backgrounds to mine and gives them the chance to make the right choices about their future', Mr George explained.

The role of Government

In view of past successes, matched funding for universities should remain ‘in the repertoire’.

But the report also recommends a role for Government beyond this, to include:

  • small changes to the system of tax relief on gifts to make it simpler and more like the system in the USA
  • encouraging the public to recognise universities as good causes that have a positive impact on wider society
  • work with the third sector to champion and celebrate a culture and environment of philanthropy.

Impact of philanthropy on higher education

In both financial and non-financial terms, a professional approach to fundraising is now key to a university’s success. 

On the financial side, the money universities and colleges get through donations is an increasingly significant amount of its overall spending.

This means universities and colleges need to manage and assess it as an income stream like any other. It should, for example, form part of the way universities and colleges normally assess risk.

The work that institutions do to attract charitable support not only provides financial support to the institution. It also improves relations with alumni and encourages other donors to recognise the value of institutional goals. Such relationships are increasingly long-term. 

Positioning the institution as a good cause

In August 2012 Vice-Chancellor Professor David Greenaway, staff and friends of the University of Nottingham are cycling 1,100 miles from Cape Wrath to Dover to raise money for “Nottingham Potential”, to provide opportunities for students who might not otherwise consider higher education. A previous sponsored Life Cycle from John O’Groats to Lands End raised more than £230,000 against a target of £150,000 for the Sue Ryder Care Centre for the Study of Supportive, Palliative and End of Life Care, based at the university.

Lessons for universities

Universities and the wide spectrum of their activity can attract every kind of charitable donation. But to do so institutions need to be clear about what the institution is and for what it stands.

To do this successfully requires a considered, strategic and sustainable approach. This means the institution should look to embed a culture of philanthropy, and make progress over a period of time, rather than through a ‘series of spikes.’

This in turn places a premium on fundraising professionals and the need to develop the skills of staff.


  • The philanthropic acceleration and excitement of the past ten years can and must continue. Philanthropy changes higher education. And higher education changes the world. There is no stronger case for support.
  • There is potential for philanthropic income of some £2 billion additional funding per annum from around 640,000 donors, with an alumni participation rate of 5%, by 2022. Income from legacies will become increasingly significant.
  • To achieve this potential, conditions must be met for continuing investment, workforce development and the embedding of good practice.
  • Alumni attitudes are fixed early in the student experience: we need a new emphasis on strategically aligned alumni relations.
  • Anticipated future trends include more fundraising across borders, particular openings for medical and health-related causes, sometimes in partnerships, and greater prominence for academic champions of institutional philanthropic priorities.

Page last updated 2 October 2012

Share this: