Pandemic is forcing college fundraisers to abandon proven strategies and go digital

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

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

“Everyone kind of went to their respective places and [bore] to understand what was to follow, ”he said.

College fundraisers, who have long relied on face-to-face meetings and events to nurture donor relationships and solicit money, have been forced to rethink their strategies. Travel was out of the question – because of the health risks posed by the pandemic and because departmental travel budgets were the first to disappear as colleges tightened their belts last spring. Campus events where alumni could gather have been canceled. Donor meetings were to be held by phone or video call.

“It’s become very, very awkward trying to do work with the business community, the foundation community, and the alumni community – those three bases in particular – because most of the work we do is social. “said McGruder. “It’s very difficult to socially distance yourself in a profession that is all about building relationships.”

College advocates have relied heavily on digital outreach strategies to reach current and potential donors, but the online mediums they chose and the stories they pushed to supporters varied. Even with the creative solutions of the Advancement Agents, it is uncertain whether fundraising revenues will increase until FY2021.

Before the pandemic, donations to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tended to increase. The university had managed to secure large donations and was in the middle of a strategic plan that was supposed to lead to strong fundraising results, said Joakim Nyoni, associate vice president for development at the university.

“When the pandemic hit, that changed,” Nyoni said. “The supporters who were already engaged have kept their promises, but those who weren’t in a position to do anything at the time decided: ‘Well, we’re just going to stay put until this pandemic slows down. . “

Nyoni’s experience matches what Jeff Martin, senior director of higher education consultancy EAB, learned from a recent study.

“I regularly hear that frontline fundraisers struggle to get new prospects to attend meetings. They find it difficult to open conversations about giving with people they haven’t established a relationship with, ”said Martin.

Digital solutions

Last spring, Prairie View A&M University hosted a Giving Tuesday fundraiser to seek emergency assistance to pay for student accommodation, food and travel. The university shared the students’ personal stories in an effort to remind alumni of their time at the historically black university in Prairie View, Texas. The entire campaign was online only and rolled out through social media and email marketing channels.

“Considering the demographics of our students – and our alumni know the demographics of our students because it was once them – this was one of our best Tuesday I Give efforts that the university has had,” a said Carme Williams, vice president of development at Prairie Vue.

Williams said the Giving Tuesday campaign has helped the university acquire new donors faster than in the past.

“That’s when we realized, ‘Yes, we’re in a pandemic, but we’re going to keep asking,'” Williams said. “And we stayed on track for our solicitation schedule. “

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

“We can’t visit our donors on the east coast or the west coast in person at this time, but we can share with them what’s going on at the university,” said Williams. “We have donors who were in Australia, who were in Sweden, and they could go online and hear what was going on at the university.”

Cultivating relationships with local supporters is essential for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, as many of its donors live nearby and work in the gaming and entertainment industries. When the pandemic struck, Nyoni and those responsible for university gifts reached out to existing donors just to register.

“We focused on stewardship and engagement with our current donors to make sure they knew we were together, that we appreciate their support and that we are there for them,” said Nyoni. “We didn’t want to focus right away on, ‘Hey, let’s just secure the gifts. “”

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

The first fundraising effort linked to the Las Vegas pandemic was to raise money for student laptops.

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

Nyoni was reluctant to fully invest in any particular new strategy as 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 changing so fast,” Nyoni said. “One week we were like, ‘Well, we’re going to be working on a campaign to provide laptops to students.’ Well, next week we don’t need laptops, we have enough, now we need broadband access.

McGruder is new to the Oglethorpe Advancement team. Previously, he worked for Junior Achievement of Georgia, a statewide nonprofit organization, and prior to that he was at the Georgia Institute of Technology as Director of Development.

During his first two weeks at university, he helped organize a Virtual Oglethorpe Day, an annual event that honors the university’s namesake, James Edward Oglethorpe, and allows the development office to bond with current students who may become future donors.

“We would usually bring people to campus, engage and do all of this fun physical activity, but we had to move to an online process,” McGruder said. “We had a bingo and trivia night, all online. “

Last year, online donations were on the rise. Online fundraising from higher education institutions grew 10% in 2020, reflecting a 21% increase in dollars raised online since 2018, according to a recent report from Anthology, a higher education consultancy. .

Williams’ experiment mirrors the data. Nyoni too.

“Online giving has increased for us, and it represents a growing share of our giving opportunities, more than in previous years,” said Nyoni. “We are welcoming many more young, tech-savvy donors who use online donation platforms. “

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

Prairie View, Oglethorpe and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas had strong development stores before the pandemic, which helped them through a difficult year.

“There is a real difference between the experiences of these development operations in colleges and universities which, before the pandemic, already had a strong and healthy donor base, and those which did not have a donor base and a strong stewardship and strong boards of directors, ”said McGruder. . “If you don’t have a strong staff, these organizations are really hit the hardest. “

Early figures give future fundraisers a hard time

Despite the creative solutions of the advancement officers, the donations during the first half of the year were grim, according to Martin of the EAB. Of 104 American and Canadian universities that responded to the Emerald ash borer investigation, a quarter reported a 30% or more drop in fundraising income between July 1 and December 31, 2020.

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

The first half of the fiscal year was punctuated by high-profile donations to colleges and universities, including billions of dollars donated to more than 35 colleges by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Renewed calls for racial justice over the summer have put the spotlight on historically black colleges and universities, many of which have received signature giveaways in the past six months. Prairie View was one of them – he received $ 50 million from Scott last year, Williams said.

But not all institutions have received such a gift. Half of survey respondents saw a drop in gift proposals over $ 25,000 in the first half of the year, with the median institution forecasting an 11% drop. Donations to higher education had already flattened as the last fiscal year drew to a close, suggesting that development offices will need whatever tactics they can think of to stop the trend.

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

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