How do You Ask for a Million Pounds?

How do You Ask for a Million Pounds?

Nick Watts

Nick Watts was Coordinator for Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy until August 2016, and is now Individual Giving Officer at the V&A Museum.

The Stage recently reported that million-pound donations to arts, culture and humanities have halved since last year, from £91m to £45m. That’s a huge amount of philanthropy missing! This is according to Coutts’ annual philanthropy reports, which show that the number of mega-donations has stayed about the same but the size has halved. It’s timely then to look at some of the most successful fundraising organisations that ask for the big bucks: universities.

In 2014, higher education received 31% of the £1.56bn million-pound donations in the UK (a close second to foundations who received 36%). Fundraising campaigns like Oxford and Cambridge’s can attract eye-wateringly large donations. Last week I went to the University of Oxford with some of the Arts Fundraising Fellows, to hear about how they run a £3bn (yes, three billion pound!) fundraising campaign.

The Blavatnic School of Government, University of Oxford, funded with a £75,000,000 gift. Photo via

The University of Oxford has a supremely well-run fundraising operation. In the past year they received two of the ten largest UK donations including a £5,000,000+ donation from the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann foundation towards scholarships and, somewhat controversially, a £75,000,000 from Len Blavatnik towards a new school of government building. Over the course of the campaign it has had 22 donors giving £1m-£5m and donations of over £100,000 have contributed 80% of funds raised in the campaign so far. It’s an important and successful part of their campaign, so how do they do it?

Firstly, and unlike the vast majority of fundraising organisations, they have a very large fundraising department of 100 staff. There are ten departments in development, each focusing on a particular fundraising activity providing highly specialised and skilled fundraisers. The prospect research department, for example, works out where the wealth is (for Europe in 2015 it’s Switzerland, France and Germany). Their job is to funnel out prospects that are less likely to give and provide great research on those who will so that Oxford’s four Principal Gift Officers (PGOs, whose focus is on gifts of over £100,000) only approach ‘warm’ prospects with the information they need.

These four fundraisers each have their own region (Europe, Central Asia, South America and mainland North America) and know the culture and language of their prospects. Major donors are spread around the world so being able to, quite literally, speak the donors’ language, understand what they’re interested in and how they like to be asked and thanked is crucial. The PGOs travel frequently to maintain relationships with prospects in a meaningful way, travelling six to eight times a year. Their prospects are ultra-high net-worth individuals so being comfortable with that lifestyle and sensitive to each person’s unique character makes all the difference. That can mean making sure they don’t do all the talking and give the donor centre stage, or it can be small things, like giving donors a pocket-sized leaflet rather than a cumbersome brochure.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 15.27.25
Figures from the University of Oxford’s 2015 campaign report.

The PGOs’ task is to set up meetings and start building a relationship, a picture of what it is about the University of Oxford that they love and might want to support with a donation. Bringing an up-and-coming academic or one of the university’s senior members of staff to the meeting, or even showing them the university’s amazing facilities, can capture the prospect’s imagination and show them the impact their donation could have.

So, once that’s all in place, how do you ask for a million pounds?

According to Liesl Elder, Director of Development at the University of Oxford, it requires being comfortable and confident with yourself and the situation, and particularly when talking about big sums of money. For most of us, a thousand pound donation can seem huge but for ultra-high net-worth individuals it’s tiny.

Of course, you have to ask for the right amount, based on research and sound judgement. The figures the PGOs ask for are big, even for some of the millionaires. It has to be at the right time too; just before they send their children to university probably isn’t the best time, but after they’ve graduated could be. It’s important that it’s the right project, and that the fundraiser has an authentic two-way conversation about the things that the donor is interested in, rather than a pitch. And it has to be the right person (i.e. the person most likely to get a ‘yes!’) who may be the fundraiser, another staff member, academic or researcher.

And importantly, the fundraiser has to be confident in and proud of their organisation’s work. They have to truly believe the project actually is worth a million pound donation, be excited about what that donation can do and be able to inspire that same enthusiasm in the donor. Not hard, when your organisation can boast to be finding new treatments for Multiple Sclerosis or protecting wild lions! But the message was clear; you can’t ask for a donation if you don’t believe it’s worth it.

And if you’d like to know how the University of Oxford says thank you for a million pounds, read this blog by Kathryn Worthington (Fundraising Fellow for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum) on The Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors, ‘an extravaganza of pomp and circumstance’!