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The Power of Community in a Crisis

by | 23 Jul 2020

Established in 1965, The University of Newcastle was built on the foundation of ‘By the community, for the community’.

Rebecca Hazell
University of Newcastle

55 years on, it’s this strong sense of community that has helped one of Australia’s largest universities, in a regional context, weather the pandemic and build an even stronger bond with the community that it’s there to serve.

Rebecca Hazell, the University’s Director of Advancement spoke with Deann Stevens from Richmond Associates about the importance of community to the success of two recent fundraising appeals.

Q. The University of Newcastle is a relatively young institution but it plays a big part in the local community. Why is that?

A. We pride ourselves on our commitment to excellence in higher education and access and equity are in our DNA. A significant portion of our students are first-in-family (to undertake higher education) and also overcome the additional challenges of lower socioeconomic or disadvantaged backgrounds. Our enabling programs have been established for well over 40 years and have seen thousands and thousands of students go through, from very diverse backgrounds. So, it’s something we’re very proud of and it’s really our job to make sure that quality education is provided to everybody who wants to access it.

Q. Given the University’s focus on supporting people who may not otherwise have been able to access higher education, what has COVID-19 meant in terms of the importance of fundraising?

A. It’s important to recognise the economic impact of COVID-19 on our students because we do have a high proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds, and from rural and remote areas.

For instance, we always have significant demand from students for scholarships but in recent months the requests from students for support for emergency grants or support for purchasing laptops went through the roof, not only from our domestic students but our international students as well.

So we had to ensure that our students were not only supported in their learning online but were also, where there was urgent need, supported financially to help reduce the financial stress so that they could focus on their studies.

Q. As part of that support the University decided to launch an Emergency Appeal as well as its Annual Pre-Tax Appeal. Were you nervous about launching those appeals and what was the reaction from the community?

A. I think it’s fair to say there was definitely some hesitation when we talked about launching an emergency appeal. And there was even more hesitation when we said we think we should also continue with the pre-tax appeal. But we were very clear that they were two distinct appeals. The emergency appeal was about hardship bursaries and laptop grants for those impacted by COVID-19. It was to meet an urgent need. Our annual pre-tax Shaping Futures Appeal is for scholarships for students who need it the most. We decided that if we chose to not go ahead, it would mean that we wouldn’t be highlighting those needs or giving people an opportunity to provide support if they could.

And we are so glad that we did go ahead, because we were so fortunate to receive more than $175,000 in donations to the emergency appeal, thanks to the generosity of our community. Nearly 50 percent of the donors who gave to that appeal had not previously made a donation to the University. We had a significant number of alumni and staff give for the first time. And we’ve had hundreds of students benefit from that generosity, allowing them to stay at university and continue with their studies, so we can’t express our gratitude enough to our community for their support.

We absolutely anticipated that we might not raise as much as we usually do with our pre-tax appeal, and the numbers in terms of gifts raised by 30 June were certainly less than last year, but not to the extent that we expected. In fact, many donors gave to both appeals and a number of donors, who we didn’t ask to give to the tax appeal because they gave so generously to the emergency appeal, actually contacted us and said, “Where is the Shaping Futures Appeal this year?”

We erred on the side of caution and sensitivity to our donors, but I think, without doubt, those two appeals demonstrated how much people believe in equity of access and the gift of education.

Q. How has COVID-19 changed the way you interact with your community and, in particular, donors?

A. One of the key things for us as a team was to reflect on the nature of our work and about the importance of relationships. It has become more important than ever to pick up the phone and to check in with our donors and send personalised emails or notes to our alumni and donors just letting them know that we’re still here.

I think what led us to do the additional emergency appeal was not only the need of our students, but it anchored us back into why we do what we do, which is actually about building relationships and providing opportunities for people to make a difference in a way that aligns to their interests and what’s important to them. So, I think continuing to fundraise and engage, and doing it with the right intent and transparency and sensitivity, became the right thing for us.

Q. Have you noticed a change in the culture of giving within the University?

A. There was a culture of generosity and giving at the University of Newcastle before but I think seeing so much support for the emergency appeal by our community just built confidence across the institution in a new way. At meetings where I was reporting back on the hardship appeal and the generosity of our community, my colleagues were overwhelmed to know that the support was there at a time when so many people were actually in crisis themselves.

The other important and unexpected piece was the personal sentiment that came, and continues to come, with the generosity. Another one of the planned appeals we continued with, even though there was some initial hesitation, was the annual pre-tax appeal we do for the University’s community radio station 2NURFM. What was incredible is that it raised even more than it did last year. The community supporters of 2NURFM traditionally send in lots of donations by cheque and what came with those cheques this year were all of these beautiful, handwritten notes from people in the community saying things like, “Thank you so much to 2NURFM – I felt so lonely during this time, but I woke up to you every day and I’m so glad that we have a community radio station that feels like my friend.”

There are so many of these gorgeous handwritten notes and we’re trying to think creatively about how we can share the beautiful sentiments more widely. The sentiment of these stories has been quite profound, and it shows that the reasons why people give, and the power of generosity, is well beyond the dollars.

Q. In relation to fundraising, what has your team done differently because of COVID-19?

A. One of the learnings we’ve discovered during this period is our tendency to overthink or overdesign things. Testing a campaign before launch, by consulting and engaging, is incredibly important but sometimes we let that hold us back from delivering what is actually needed now, in that moment, like the emergency appeal.

Like most organisations, we usually work on our appeals for weeks, heavily segmenting everything, interviewing students, creating video content, writing and testing numerous variations of copy.

For our recent emergency appeal, we didn’t do any of that as it was an urgent need and time critical. Instead, it was a very clearly written letter from the Vice-Chancellor with no design, no student storytelling, just true articulation of need, and an opportunity to give being presented, along with some facts about why it was needed. And the community response and outpouring of generosity to that simple email from the Vice-Chancellor was truly humbling. It highlights the need to be authentic and true, and talk about what is a real need.

The takeaway for us going forward is to not overthink things, however it remains important to take a considered approach. Be very authentic. At the end of the day, what’s mattered the most is that through our appeals our donors are able to help students who need it the most.

Q. Are there any positive aspects that have arisen from COVID-19 that you’d like to see continue?

A. One of the things I love about the advancement sector is that the spirit of sharing has always been really strong. What has surprised me though, in a really great way, is how we’ve come together across all sectors through virtual roundtables and network groups and there is an increased layer of sharing to the point where we’re talking in more detail now than we have before. I feel like I can pick up the phone and ring colleagues that I’ve been on a roundtable with and ask how they tackled that problem? And people are saying, “I can show you the plan if you like”.

I hope that continues because that’s been really energising for me as a leader and I think it will help to continue to foster good practice in fundraising for the benefit of our donors and our community.


  • The University of Newcastle is a research-intensive university focused on improving the quality of life in our regions and around the globe.
  • It is currently ranked 197th in the world by QS World University Rankings and is consistently ranked within Australia’s top 10 universities.
  • The Office of Alumni and Philanthropy has 31 staff and sits within the Global Engagement and Partnerships Division of the University of Newcastle.

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