Pandemic forces college fundraisers to abandon tried-and-true strategies, go digital

Pandemic forces college fundraisers to abandon tried-and-true strategies, go digital

Academics and athletics got most of the press, but the pandemic also interrupted fundraising efforts when it forced colleges and universities to temporarily close their campuses last spring.

Juan McGruder, vice president for advancement at Oglethorpe University, said advancement shops and donors retreated to their respective corners for a moment after employees were asked to work remotely.

“Everybody sort of went to their respective locations and [bore] down to figure out what was next,” he said.

College fundraising officers, who long relied on in-person meetups and events to cultivate relationships with donors and solicit money, were forced to rethink their strategies. Travel was out of the question — because of the health risks the pandemic posed and because departmental travel budgets were the first to go as colleges tightened their belts last spring. On-campus events where alumni could gather were canceled. Donor meetings had to take place over the phone or via video call.

“It became very, very awkward to try to do the work with the corporate community, the foundation community and the alumni community — those three bases in particular — because most of the work that we do is social,” McGruder said. “It’s very hard to social distance in a profession that’s about relationship building.”

College advancement officers largely turned to digital outreach strategies to reach current and potential donors, but the online mediums they chose and the narratives they pushed to supporters varied. Even with advancement officers’ creative solutions, it’s not certain that fundraising revenue will grow through fiscal year 2021.

Before the pandemic, giving to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was trending upward. The university had been successful in securing major gifts and was in the middle of a strategic plan that was supposed to lead to strong fundraising outcomes, said Joakim Nyoni, associate vice president for development at the university.

“When the pandemic hit, that changed,” Nyoni said. “Supporters that were already committed have fulfilled their pledges, but the ones that were not in a position to do something at the time decided, ‘Well, we’re just going to stay put right now until this pandemic comes to a slowdown.’”

Nyoni’s experience falls in line with what Jeff Martin, senior director at the higher education consulting firm EAB, gleaned from a recent survey.

“Consistently, I’m hearing that front-line fundraisers are having difficulty getting new prospects to take meetings. They’re having trouble opening up the conversations about giving with people who they don’t have established relationships with,” Martin said.

Digital Solutions

Last spring, Prairie View A&M University held a Giving Tuesday fundraiser to solicit emergency aid to pay for students’ housing, food and travel expenses. The university shared students’ personal stories in an effort to remind alumni of their time at the historically Black university in Prairie View, Tex. The entire campaign was online-only and rolled out through social media and email marketing channels.

“Given the demographic of our students — and our alumni know the demographic of our students because it was once them — that was one of our best Giving Tuesday efforts that the university had,” said Carme Williams, vice president of development at Prairie View.

Williams said the Giving Tuesday push helped the university acquire new donors faster than it had in the past.

“That’s when we realized that, ‘Yes, we are in a pandemic, but we are going to continue to ask,’” Williams said. “And we stayed on track for our calendar of solicitations.”

Over the summer, Prairie View debuted a virtual speaker series hosted by the advancement office. The series featured a handful of speakers from the university’s academic affairs office, the School of Architecture, the College of Business, the College of Juvenile Justice and Psychology, and a new Center for Race and Justice.

“We cannot visit face-to-face with our donors on the East Coast or the West Coast at this time, but we can share with them what is going on at the university,” Williams said. “We have donors that were in Australia, that were in Sweden, and they could get online and hear what was going on at the university.”

Cultivating relationships with local supporters is essential for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, because many of its donors live nearby and work in the gaming and entertainment industries. When the pandemic hit, Nyoni and university gift officers reached out to existing donors just to check in.

“We focused on stewardship and engagement with our current donors to ensure that they knew we were in this together, that we appreciate their support to us and that we’re there for them,” Nyoni said. “We did not want to focus right away on, ‘Hey, let’s just secure the gifts.’”

In lieu of in-person visits this year, the advancement office has used ThankView, a personalized video platform that allows them to send videos to donors.

Las Vegas’s first pandemic-related fundraising effort was to bring in money for laptops for students.

“While we were going remote, it became clear that not all of our students had access to technology,” Nyoni said. “We quickly started raising money for an emergency fund to provide computers and broadband access. The university worked with a corporate partner to secure free wireless internet.”

Nyoni was hesitant to fully invest in any particular new strategy while the fundraising environment was still changing.

“We didn’t really want to go too crazy and try too many different things, because the reality of this pandemic was evolving so fast,” Nyoni said. “One week, we’d say, ‘Well, we’re going to work on a campaign to provide students with laptops.’ Well, next week we don’t need laptops, we have enough of those, now we need broadband access.”

McGruder is new to the Oglethorpe advancement team. Previously, he worked at Junior Achievement of Georgia, a statewide nonprofit, and before that he was at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a director of development.

Within his first couple of weeks at the university, he helped host a virtual Oglethorpe Day, an annual event that honors the university’s namesake, James Edward Oglethorpe, and allows the development office to build connections with current students who could become future donors.

“We would usually bring people to campus and engage and have all these fun physical activities, but we had to shift that to an online process,” McGruder said. “We had a bingo night and trivia, all online.”

Last year, online giving was on the rise. Online fundraising to higher education institutions grew by 10 percent in 2020, reflecting a 21 percent increase in dollars raised online since 2018, according to a recent report by Anthology, a higher education consulting firm.

Williams’s experience reflects the data. So does Nyoni’s.

“Online giving did grow for us, and it has been a growing part of our giving opportunities, more than in previous years,” Nyoni said. “We’re getting a lot more young and tech-savvy donors who use online giving platforms.”

The average online gift amount also increased in 2020 to $428, up from $412 in 2019, according to the report.

Prairie View, Oglethorpe and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had strong development shops heading into the pandemic, which helped carry them through a difficult year.

“There’s a real difference between the experiences of those development operations at colleges and universities that already, pre-pandemic, had a strong and healthy donor base, versus those that did not have a strong donor base and stewardship and strong boards,” McGruder said. “If you don’t have a strong staff, those organizations are really hit harder.”

Early Numbers Spell Trouble for Future Fundraising

Despite creative solutions by advancement officers, giving during the first half of the fiscal year was bleak, according to EAB’s Martin. Of 104 American and Canadian universities that responded to the EAB survey, a quarter reported 30 percent or larger declines in fundraising revenue between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2020.

More than half of institutions saw some fundraising revenue dips, and nearly half saw double-digit declines. The median decline in fundraising dollars was 9.4 percent.

The first half of the fiscal year was punctuated by high-profile gifts to colleges and universities — most notably the billions of dollars gifted to more than 35 colleges by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Renewed calls for racial justice over the summer put a spotlight on historically Black colleges and universities, many of which were the recipients of marquee gifts in the last six months. Prairie View was one of them — it received $50 million from Scott last year, Williams said.

But not every institution received such a donation. Half of survey respondents saw a decline in gift proposals larger than $25,000 during the first half of the fiscal year, with the median institution looking at an 11 percent decline. Donations to higher education had already flattened as the last fiscal year drew to a close, suggesting development offices will need all the tactics they can think of to stop the trend.

“The story on the ground is that we’re poised for a big slowdown in fundraising next year and probably at least a year after that,” Martin said.

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