Higher Education: What can universities learn from charities?

By Ilse van der Hoeven

Universities are often told by outsiders that they should go and learn lessons from business. They are almost never encouraged to learn from the experience of charities.

Yet many of the strategic challenges facing universities seem to be similar to those faced by the charity sector over the last ten years.

As a result, the sectors have lots to learn from each other and there are many rewarding opportunities for learning and collaboration. 

The idea of "impact" is driving change in Universities

The sector is facing disruptive change.

The drivers of global change are well known. They include increased competition, changes in the policy environment, shifts in demand, changes in student numbers and behaviours, as well as the potentially transformational impact of technology and innovation. 

In addition to these drivers, the idea of impact has come up the agenda in recent years.

We see four reasons for this:

  • because of regulation and government policy, with initiatives like the REF.
  • because of funding, especially from non-traditional sources. More philanthropic and government departments fund HE initiatives expecting something from their investment beyond traditional academic outputs. This can be everything from policy change to development impact to more commercial spin-outs. 
  • because of the changing expectations and economics of educating students, raising questions about the contribution of universities to society
  • because academics and universities are doing more to articulate their role in society and their communities. It is increasingly common to see universities make these social and public objectives central to their strategy

Universities should learn from the charity sector

The current strategic questions facing the Higher Education sector have much in common with the journey that the charity sector has been on over the last ten years.

As institutions, charities and universities have always had a social purpose at their core.

Over the last ten years, our charity clients have become much more focused on outcomes. They think more strategically and have become more outward-looking. They have invested in new skills and harnessed new technologies. There has been significant cultural and organisational change.

They have done this in a world of increased competition and complexity, funding constraints and uncertainty, and changing demand for their services. 

They have taken these steps because they have tried to answer the sort of questions that are relevant to many higher education institutions today:

  • How do you define, and measure, success?
  • How do you balance a hybrid business model that combines government money, philanthropy and commercial income from services?
  • How do you deal with a world of ever more accountability, scrutiny, competition and less money?
  • How do you think about impact?

These questions are often difficult for universities to answer, because they aren't simple questions.

For charities, impact is change.

For universities, it often seems harder to talk about impact. ‘Impact’ in an academic context can be a contested word, meaning different things to different people.

There's an established language and well-established set of metrics around publications in journals, number of citations and impact factors.

By comparison, "real world impact" is hard to measure, attribute and report.

The breakthroughs that have an impact in the real world – an observable change in the world – are often not rewarded in an academic environment. In addition, “real world impact" often happens at the intersection of disciplines, and the change is qualitative and intangible.

In the worst cases, reporting on "impact" can feel like a pointless exercise. We have worked with academics and charities in different contexts who talk about the bureaucracy of "manufacturing impact" - sometimes it can feel like a form-filling exercise conducted after the fact to justify what you were going to do anyway.

There are opportunities for learning and collaboration with charities

The opportunity lies in moving from thinking about impact as an “output that you try to count”, to thinking of it as an objective that you plan for.

Charities have changed the way they work by making impact a central theme of their strategy.

The challenge – for both universities and charities – is to avoid creating bureaucracies in response to the need to report and quantify impact for funders.

By taking a strategic approach, and working in partnership with charities who are engaged and interested, universities can be more systematic about these ideas, understand their context, estimate their chances of success and really understand the connections.

Beyond the opportunity for learning, there are opportunities for partnerships.

Universities are interested in knowledge. They bring expertise, credibility, rigour, and the long-term perspective of stable institutions to their partnerships. 

Charities bring a sense of mission and a point of view. They have an understanding of their communities, they have expertise in fundraising, communications and policy. They are interested in change.

These common interests can come together in powerful partnerships.

The table below shows a number of ways in which collaboration can work. We have seen promising examples of partnerships in the areas of research collaboration, community and philanthropy, whilst policy and impact provide promising areas for innovation:

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At Firetail, we believe this sort of thinking about strategy, learning and collaboration can lead change in both charities and universities.

It can prove highly effective at sharpening thinking, focusing ideas and forcing people to think about the world around them.

A strategic approach supported by strong, long-term partnerships will allow universities to focus on creating real change, rather than run the risk of "manufacturing impact" for its own sake.