An investigation carried out by Cherwell has discovered a recent drive to boost alumni donations, as students raise concerns about Oxford’s relationship with its alumni compared to other institutions.
The investigation found that an increasing number of colleges have begun to use telethons, with these frequently raising several hundreds of thousands of pounds in individual campaigns.
Univ alone raised £375,000 in their latest telethon, while Lincoln and Brasenose raised £278,000 and £250,000 respectively. Lincoln’s efforts to raise the record-breaking figure included a Twitter account where the student telethon team could tweet about the rising number of donations.
Reflecting personally on the matter, Hannah Thomas, Assistant Development Director at Lincoln, said, “I am an Oxford alumna and received a hardship bursary as a student, so am a passionate believer in the power of alumni donations!
“Oxford is, after all, historically built on benefactions from alumni and friends, and it would be entirely different without such generosity.”
Nick Worsley, a second year at the college, said: “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to keep people in contact with their college and keep them involved with the development of the colleges even after they have finished their time at university.”
St John’s, who held their first telethon last year, explained its reasons for the decision in its annual Benefactors’ Report, which read, “Feedback from other colleges indicated that alumni generally enjoy the calls, whether or not they choose to make a gift.”
It claimed that the benefits from its telethon were not just financial. “A telephone call also provides a direct connection between alumni and current students, who can speak from experience of the challenges they face and how the college has supported them.”
It noted that over 80% of the 230 alumni who donated during the campaign had never made a gift before, and over 50% of those contacted in the campaign made a gift.
All of the colleges who responded to our survey said that they had used student callers for their campaigns. These students could expect to earn upwards of £7 an hour for the work, with some colleges offering as much as £10 an hour for callers with experience. In many cases, other perks such as free accommodation were offered.
Ed Alveyn, one of the student callers for the Trinity telethon, said he experienced an overall positive experience working with fellow students to raise funds from alumni.
“One of the things I did get out of the process was learning about what Trinity uses the money for – i.e. it’s spent immediately for projects that benefit current students.
“The fact that I was convinced the money was being spent on worthwhile things helped a lot, as I could genuinely make a case for a donation.
“Most of the alumni I spoke to understood this, and very few were in principle against the idea of giving back – mostly it was a case of insufficient funds.
“As you’d expect, a few people were a bit stroppy and tried to get off the phone (or told their spouse to pretend they were out…) but they were pretty rare.”
Another caller who worked on a Balliol telethon said, “The amount of training, working conditions, incentives and pay were excellent – I just didn’t really enjoy asking for money.
“Having said that, it was great to chat to so many friendly old members and lots of them approached the idea of money first.
“Afterwards I had about five really nice written letters to me from some alumni I had spoken to. Some were very rude and didn’t want the call at all (although they had been sent at least two letters, including one to opt out of the campaign), whereas others were somewhere in between – didn’t want to chat but wanted to give lots of money, or had been eagerly awaiting the call!”
Wadham, which has already held a telethon this year and will be holding another before the year is over, was helped by an alumnus who offered to match the amounts raised, showing the benefit of continual alumni interaction and support.
However, visiting Wadham student, Tanay Warreker who has been involved in telethons both at Wadham and in the United States at a small private university, suggested that Oxford may be behind in some aspects. She said, “You see endowments of American universities and they are higher individually than Cambridge and Oxford combined. Oxford has not had the time to develop the same alumni relations but are on to a good start.”
Pembroke alumnus Tom Holder wrote a letter to Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, detailing his concerns about the disparities between British and American universities, speaking of a “disconnection from my former university” and claiming, “my nectar card is more inspiring and attractive than my Alumni card, with better perks to boot.”
“I would like to make two suggestions – neither particularly expensive or difficult given the scale of potential donations, which our American cousins tap so effectively from their alumni.
“The first is to create a decent alumni card. On this would be printed our details in a way which would suggest this was our card, not just a card with our details on it.
“The second suggestion would be to create an agreement among colleges that such a card would guarantee entry to the college (for free).
“Such a card serves to remind anyone opening their wallet what gave them the opportunities in life that have put them where they are now (and filled up their wallet). It is this connection which will support bringing the kind of donations that American universities benefit from.”
Many colleges have however taken recent measures to boost funds. Merton has recently launched a fund-raising drive to mark its 750th Anniversary, which it hopes will raise £30 million.
Christine Taylor, Merton’s Director of Development, said, “Alumni donations are hugely important for Merton college.”
She added, “The college is immensely grateful to its alumni and friends, who are enabling it to sustain excellence and support its students, against the backcloth of cuts in Government Funding.
“Counting since the 2007/2008 academic year, £15.75 million has been raised so far, of which 71% has come from Merton alumni (and their trusts and foundations) – so approximately £4 million per year.”