Rethink donor outreach during the coronavirus pandemic


Rethink donor outreach during the coronavirus pandemic

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been bringing together groups of advancement leaders (virtually, of course) from the US, UK, and Canada to talk through their thoughts, concerns, and emerging strategies in response to COVID-19.  Four imperatives emerged from these virtual working groups, highlighting how CAOs are rethinking donor outreach in these uncertain times during coronavirus.

1. Lead with new virtual engagement opportunities for alumni and families

As Instagram and other social media platforms clearly indicate, many working adults are now sitting at home with partners, children, elders, plants, and pets and are feeling increasingly frustrated with their isolation from the outside world. 

Colleges and universities are taking this opportunity to provide learning and engagement in a proactive way.  Gonzaga University’s “Zags at Home” website is a prime example.  It includes coloring pages for kids, webinars, cooking recipes, and even Gonzaga-themed digital backgrounds to use during Zoom meetings.  The hope is that this engagement-first outreach will generate a sense of community, gratitude, and loyalty particularly among younger alumni.

2. Update donors on how your institution is helping to fight COVID-19

It is perhaps more important than ever for higher-ed. institutions to find and highlight ways that you are impacting communities, contributing to medical care and research, or continuing your primary mission of educating and supporting students. 

Efforts we’ve seen in this area include encouraging donations of airline miles, gift cards, and housing for displaced students at Guilford College, using university buildings as workshops for mask-production at Cornell, shifting “Giving Day” themes to include support for custodial and food-services staff at Pitzer College, and rallying donors to support the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s COVID-19 vaccine testing, highlighted on their “Fight COVID-19” web page.

3. Reach out to donors just to check on them

Like so many others today, your donors are seeing friends and family members falling ill, and they’re concerned about their own health and safety as well.  Careful outreach efforts and “care calls” aimed simply at checking in on donors are, in fact, resulting in some gifts coming in larger and sooner than expected. 

Many institutions are reporting that the COVID-19 crisis appears to be acting as a catalyst for some donors to move long, drawn-out giving conversations forward more quickly and to give unexpected major, principal, and planned gifts.  More donors are also offering to give some or all of their donations as “unrestricted” funds to help meet pressing institutional needs.

4. Pilot new stewardship touches

With less solicitation work happening right now, many advancement shops are using this time to catch up on stewardship. And for many colleges and universities, the current remote-work environment is producing a renaissance of creative stewardship ideas. 

For example, Utah State University is both supporting local businesses and expressing gratitude to their donors by having chocolates delivered to 700 donors’ homes, advancement staff at Occidental College and the University of Memphis are working with their faculty to send personalized “ThankView” videos to donors, and scholarship recipients at the University of Minnesota-Duluth are recording short videos on their phones to thank donors and to tell them about their transition to fully online learning.

One of our virtual working group participants summed up the current situation, saying that several of their creative, new outreach efforts are strategies “that we wouldn’t be doing as much if we were back in our normal environment.”

At the same time, we know that life will return to normal–or some version of it–before too long, and your outreach programs, your impactful work for students, staff, and communities, and your new engagement opportunities that are creating a sense of connectedness and perhaps generating somewhat smaller gifts today are also just as surely helping to build your major-gifts pipeline for the future.

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