It’s all academic: University fundraiser loves her work

Rebecca Hazell MFIA CFRE is the director of advancement at the University of Newcastle; a university created over 50 years ago ‘by the people for the people.’ She says while major gifts, appeals and bequests are essential in supporting the work of the university, a unique community event also has pride of place in the fundraising calendar. She loves the people she gets to meet from brilliant professors and current students to generous benefactors and inspiring alumni. Just don’t ask her to schedule in a Marvel Comics film!

Fundraising wasn’t on your radar initially as a career. Did you fall into it like so many people?

I wanted to be a journalist, musician and lawyer when I was younger. But where I ultimately landed was the arts, which I loved. While working for a regional art gallery, I found I preferred raising funds to make projects happen rather than executing the projects themselves.

In that role, I was able to negotiate some local sponsorships, helping to raise money for the collection and community arts projects. I also did some grant writing to obtain funds to make specific projects happen, and I liked that work.

Then I moved to the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, where I officially started in fundraising. The plan was that I’d learn core fundraising skills at the hospital and then go back to the arts. But I decided I liked working with communities and fundraising in that space instead!

Life-changing scholarships: Rebecca Hazell, director of advancement at the University of Newcastle‘s Office of Alumni and Philanthropy (front row, centre) with Jack Ma (also centre), the recently retired Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman who is supporting the university with a scholarship program. She was in China recently with the recent crop of Ma and Morley scholarship students. The scholarship program is made possible by a generous US$20 million philanthropic commitment by the Jack Ma Foundation and seeks to inspire, educate and cultivate the next generation of globally aware and socially conscious Australian leaders.

You later operated a fundraising consultancy. What was that like?

During my time in Brisbane, I started my consultancy, Giving Capacity, and worked for hospitals, universities and not-for-profits for three and a half years, including advising on a large capital campaign for Hear and Say. I enjoyed the diversity and playing a role in enabling a sustainable approach to fundraising for those organisations.

I mostly worked with clients in Queensland, and the work suited me as I had young kids at the time, and wanted to stay put for a while. Had I stayed in Brisbane, I would have gone wider in my consultancy work. But then the opportunity came up to lead the advancement program at the University of Newcastle. It was too good to pass up, as I have a soft spot for Newcastle and the university. I was a student here many years ago, and my husband is a ‘Novocastrian,’ so I had been visiting the city for more than a decade. I’ve been working at the university for six years now.

What is the attraction of university fundraising?

It’s the diversity of the cause. Universities are doing everything from cancer research to environmental sustainability, to complex engineering projects that are being rolled out in remote parts of the world to help isolated communities. I find you have many ways to align the university’s priorities with donor interests, especially in the academic environment. Most importantly, I genuinely believe in the power of education – it’s a gamechanger.

How different is university fundraising from working in charities and NGOs?

People give because they’re passionate about something. It’s no different for universities. One difference might be is that universities are often major gift-focused. But, at the same time, universities are also fantastic places for community-based fundraising, particularly acquisition work, which can play a key role in building a culture of philanthropy, as we’ve discovered.

That leads to the next question. Tell us about the trek you organise every two years?

Every two years, we organise a peer-to-peer fundraising challenge; this year’s trek was in a remote part of Australia. You might not think of universities for this kind of fundraising. But it’s been fantastic for us because the trek has created a culture of philanthropy across our institution and our community.

We have staff, alumni, business people and community leaders who participate in the trek. This year we had 25 volunteer trekkers taking one week to walk 100km of the arid South Australian outback in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges. Their goal was to raise over $125,000 to support generational change through Indigenous education and health research. They were delighted when they realised upon returning home that they had raised more than $150,000!

Our uni has one of the highest populations of Indigenous students in the country, and we have had a continued commitment to Indigenous education for decades. From a fundraising perspective, the trek has enabled us to acquire many donors, and we’ve grown our donor base through this project as well as through our appeals. The trek has helped to play a role in positioning the university as a charitable entity. Most importantly, our trekkers, their friends, family and colleagues who have donated, have all made a significant difference to the lives of many students who have received scholarships through their efforts and our researchers whose work is changing many lives.

In your time, you’ve taken a university-wide approach to fundraising and brought different groups together under the one banner (the Office of Alumni and Philanthropy). Was this challenging?

The origins of philanthropy go back five decades here at the University of Newcastle. It started when the community got behind a campaign to build a great hall in the late 1960s. The work undertaken by previous teams was excellent and set us up for the future. Our work has always needed to be a whole-of-university effort rather than the activities of one office off to the side.

What we’ve done more recently is create a conscious culture around being a philanthropic organisation. We’ve made fundraising and the impact of philanthropy fun and more visible to everyone. There have been decades of generosity; but until recently, we hadn’t talked about it or showcased its effects, like the difference generosity has made to the lives of thousands of students and how it has enabled incredible research. Now we’re sharing more of these stories with our stakeholders, which is bringing everyone together as a community.

What are the joys and challenges of your work?

There are way more joys than challenges. Interestingly, I find overcoming difficulties also brings joys! The biggest delights are seeing the impact of the work we do and the reaction of donors when they experience first-hand the difference their generosity is making.

The Ma and Morley Scholarship Program is a program that gives me particular joy. It honours the enduring friendship between Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma and Novocastrian Ken Morley. The program aims to inspire and educate the next generation of globally aware and socially conscious Australian leaders and is made possible by an incredibly generous US $20 million commitment from the Jack Ma Foundation. I had the good fortune to travel with 29 of our Ma and Morley scholars to China on the annual immersion experience, which is part of their scholarship. It was a fantastic experience; they are inspiring people who are going to have an impact on the world.

The students were thrilled to have the opportunities that this scholarship program provides. Their joy and learnings will ripple through their families, communities and workplaces for decades to come. It makes me want to work harder with my team to deliver more of that joy across many more communities!

Are the alumni natural ambassadors for you?

Yes. We have 143,000 alumni in 134 countries. We’ve been doing a lot in the international space in the last few years, and it impacts our fundraising and engagement in a very positive way. Alumni are excellent ambassadors for the institution for global partnerships, student recruitment and student experience as well as our global reputation. We’ve been focusing on areas where we have alumni in high numbers like here in the Hunter and Central Coast regions, and China and Singapore. Our Singapore alumni community is a particularly active, engaged and generous community.

What have been your favourite fundraising projects?

The Ma and Morley scholarship program is particularly enjoyable. This program will change hundreds of students’ lives over the next 20 years as it welcomes 30 new students each year and will have a ripple effect well beyond that.

Another is a research project supported through the Paul Ramsay Foundation. This is a fantastic, world-leading initiative led by Laureate Professor Jenny Gore and her team called Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR) which will positively affect more than 34,000 Australian teachers and potentially impact more than 1.5 million school students over the next five years. This work wouldn’t be possible without that philanthropic investment.

We also have our Shaping Futures Scholarship Fund, established in 2011, to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds and help give them the gift of education that might not otherwise be possible. That fund has grown significantly in recent years and is 100 per cent funded by donors. This year alone, more than 50 students received scholarships valued at $4,000 each through that fund, and it’s growing every year.

At the same time, there are hundreds of deserving students who apply for Shaping Futures scholarships that unfortunately we’re not yet able to support, so there’s an excellent opportunity to work with our alumni, staff, community and broader stakeholders to aspire to give everyone who needs it, a scholarship to complete their degree and reach their potential.

What’s it like when you meet scholarship recipients?

I love the confidence and pride a scholarship instils in these students. They’re proud that someone who doesn’t even know them, believed in them enough to give them the gift of education. It goes beyond the financial and it’s pretty special.

What are the delights of working as a regional fundraiser?

There are considerable benefits in working in a regional city. People here have a sense of ownership when it comes to the University of Newcastle. We’re fortunate that physically, Newcastle is currently a one university town. We’re a uni created by the people for the people. Novocastrians fought to have this university built, and there’s enormous strength in that.

Many university graduates who live here went to our uni, and many graduates have gone away and come back here to raise their families. There is a strong sense of connection to our university, and philanthropic support remains strong in the regional context.

What are the challenges?

More challenging regionally is recruiting staff. My team is growing, our philanthropic income has more than trebled in the last few years, and donor numbers are up. My challenge is to hire for that growth. I also have to think about how we, as a team, share our knowledge and grow our talent. I’m currently looking at people around the uni who might have transferrable skills into fundraising and are inspired by the work we do as alumni and fundraising professionals.

The benefit of working in a university is these institutions are large, complex places with clever people. If we can inspire people across the uni community who want to make a career change and would consider fundraising or alumni engagement work, that’s one way to overcome the recruitment challenge. We also bring in students to work on specific projects to get them interested. We also invest in our current team to cross-skill.

Our organisation is regional in context, but also global in reach and impact with stakeholders beyond Australia. Our fundraising must be adaptive and smart.

Do fundraisers tend to meet up in Newcastle?

Several organisations fundraise here, and their causes are diverse, which is fantastic. But the approaches vary. For example, major gifts fundraising is a critical part of what we do, but other organisations focus more on different aspects of fundraising. There is a great organisation here that brings non-profits together, and some of their breakfast topics are very relevant, but there isn’t necessarily a dedicated network for fundraisers, per se.

I’ve been talking with FIA staff about educational and networking events to bring regional fundraisers together because I believe there are opportunities to do more in that space. FIA CEO Katherine Raskob is very receptive to the idea, so I think we’ll be doing some informal events soon!

You have partnerships with several local foundations. How are they going?

We’re fortunate the initiatives supported through those philanthropic partnerships is very effective work and progressing well. It’s essential when you work on large partnerships that you’re investing in them in a sustained way. It takes time to look after such relationships. Developing the concept and the gift is collaborative while delivering on the work is also cooperative. We can learn from and leverage from each other.  

How vital are gifts in wills to the university?

Essential. We’ve had many bequests over the decades, and we’re now telling the stories of these wonderful gifts more frequently. There are many incredible bequests that have supported everything from physics and astronomy to scholarships helping medical students. The diversity is amazing. We publish stories about gifts in wills from years ago and also more recent ones in our stewardship newsletter, The Gift, and when we receive these gifts in wills from alumni, we also share these stories in our alumni e-news.

We have a bequest morning tea every year, and we invite people who have pledged, and family members of those whose generous gift we’ve already received. We also ask students, professors and researchers who have benefited from those bequests.

This event honours those gifts in a meaningful way and puts them in context. It helps people to understand their research or scholarship has been made possible from someone who has walked before them. We had 65 people at our most recent morning tea, which is hosted by the vice-chancellor.

What are you most proud of achieving in your career?

It’s about the teams I’ve worked with and being able to inspire them to dedicate their careers to the fundraising sector. The more people that choose our profession and dedicate their careers to creating a culture of giving, honouring the intent of donors and making a difference, the better. I’m most proud of being a part of that.

What’s the most pressing problem in the fundraising sector, and how can FIA help?

One of the biggest challenges is about inspiring and fostering new talent in fundraising and keeping people here. I often think about the many people I’ve worked with over the years who had great talent but left the sector.

We do quite a bit ourselves to grow people in our team, and FIA does a lot in the training space. But it’s not just about training. It’s about seeing fundraising as a valid career path and being able to identify the options for you when you choose to be in fundraising. I don’t know that we do this well as a sector.

We need to do more career mapping and help people to visualise a career outside of their current job. There’s work we could do with FIA and the Council for Advancement and the Support of Education (CASE) to help people find a genuine career path in fundraising.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love hanging out with my husband and two boys. I enjoy walking along the beach, cooking and gardening. I also like board games and reading with the boys.

The hardest bit with three men in the family? Watching all those Marvel Comics movies! I have to feign great enthusiasm for those films and for Pokémon hunting which my husband and kids love. But I figure if you can’t beat them, join them!