As 2021 continues with much of last year’s turmoil and uncertainty still in place, the great news is that the mission of higher education has great power right now, as many donors seek more giving opportunities that relate specifically to helping students overcome obstacles and achieve socio-economic mobility. At EAB, we recently had the privilege of talking with more than 30 Presidents and Chief Advancement Officers from regional colleges and universities across the United States in two virtual working-group sessions. In these meetings, we asked which outreach, engagement, cultivation, and solicitation strategies are working right now as institutions move beyond the initial “check-ins” or “care calls” of the earlier part of 2020 to restart giving conversations with donors today. What we discovered are five ways that advancement shops are adapting to today’s unique fundraising circumstances. We believe that the thoughtfulness and creativity evident in these innovative practices will sustain higher-ed. institutions as the pandemic and economic uncertainty continue during 2021.
As some donors and most advancement staff have understandably grown tired of hearing about the challenges of COVID, the President of Southern Connecticut State University told us, “We are shifting the conversation from the negatives to the opportunities”, and this is clearly resonating with both alumni/ae and donors. Although many (but not all) of the following examples focus on regional institutions, we are hearing very similar, promising stories from several of our partner institutions across all segments in the US, Canada, and the UK today:
1. Demonstrate advancement’s commitment to the student experience to help build loyalty during challenging times
Advancement staff at many regional, national, and international institutions today are stepping up to contribute in a variety of new areas beyond their traditional fundraising roles.
At Drake University, for example, advancement staff volunteered to run the university’s new contact-tracing program, and the Westmont College advancement office helped to implement a comprehensive COVID PCR-testing program for every on-campus student to ensure a safe educational environment there. Instead of traditional phone calls to encourage admitted students to enroll, Ferris State University is building a partnership between their Alumni Relations and Admissions Offices to conduct this outreach using text messages and Zoom meetings for the first time. And at the University of the Ozarks, the advancement office is serving as a “concierge” for students who have contracted COVID-19 and are in on-campus quarantine housing, providing these students with goodie bags, thermometers, feminine hygiene products, and other items.
By contributing to their institutions in new, creative ways, advancement shops are not only demonstrating their commitment to the student experience, but are also building relationships across institutions and generating some of the student gratitude and loyalty that have been on the decline worldwide for decades now, but which are essential elements of many students’ propensity to give as alumni/ae.
2. Provide multiple giving opportunities for donors and don’t be afraid to ask
As EAB’s research predicted in 2020, principal giving has not been down for many institutions in FY2021, and several colleges and universities are confirming on-target campaign goals and steady – or increasing – principal giving today. Beyond this, donors are responding well to a variety of fundraising efforts, including direct-mail campaigns (Longwood and Pittsburg State Universities) and opportunities to give to specific areas such as student scholarships, healthcare programs, and social/racial justice initiatives.
Successful, innovative examples here include “gift registry” pages allowing donors to “purchase” (donate) everything from football uniforms (Pittsburg State) to professional clothing for student interviews (Fort Hays State) to a crowdfunded Steinway piano (William Paterson University’s “88 Keys” initiative). With many universities including Salem State reporting few if any donor objections to solicitations via Zoom and some institutions experimenting with in-person, COVID-safe donor meetings (including Westmont College and Texas State University), another phenomenon has arisen during COVID: an increase in what the President of Quincy University calls “bluebird gifts”. As he explained to us, these sizeable gifts simply fly through the door with little to no prior cultivation – certainly welcome visitors!
3. Invent and expand virtual engagement opportunities to extend your reach and impact
Even before COVID-19, attendance at in-person events was on the decline, and the pandemic has served as a catalyst for some much-needed transformations in the ways advancement and alumni-relations teams connect with donors and prospects.
Virtual versions of campus tours, meetings, and homecomings, for example, have proven extremely popular, and Holy Names University even commented that their virtual events are engaging larger numbers of alumni/ae than their in-person events ever have. Advancement teams are also using this time to collaborate more broadly – with donors, graduates, and academics – to extend their reach. Particularly successful strategies here include connecting scholarship recipients with their donors online at the University of Northern Colorado and collaborating with the Dean of the College of Education at William Paterson University to create virtual learning tools for alumni parents.
In all, this virtual programming has vastly extended higher-ed. outreach, as Pittsburg State noted: “We are conducting at least one virtual alumni event each week on a whole menu of interests. We have more first-time alumni participation, and they are from areas we haven’t been able to travel to in the past”.
4. Increase access to the president to create a sense of community that is often missing in the online space
Academic research on philanthropy at colleges and universities in the United States indicates that a key factor in fundraising success is a university leadership team – and particularly a president – who is dedicated to higher-ed. philanthropy and understands the roles, requirements, and enormous value of a well run advancement shop. Examples of presidents helping to lead the charge on the fundraising front today include the President of Muhlenberg College popping into Zoom calls with donors and development officers for five minutes to say hello and express her appreciation and the President of Westmont College helping to bake cookies as appreciation gifts for over 500 households of legacy donors. In the world of virtual engagement, we’re also seeing some interesting innovations here, including the President of Quincy University hosting a virtual cooking class in his home and the President of the University of the Ozarks hosting an informal “fireside chat” via Facebook live, allowing participants to ask questions in the moment.
With both of these “inside the president’s house” virtual events, the key seems to be simply granting access to the president as an authentic, honest, even sometimes vulnerable human being who may not be the best cook or who may struggle with technologies like Zoom. The sense of connectedness that these events generate will help to create philanthropic relationships down the road, and whether or not individual donors or alumni/ae end up attending, many of them are clearly demonstrating their appreciation for these invitations.
5. Focus on the “middle tier” to cultivate the next generation of major gift donors
With annual, principal, and planned giving going unexpectedly well for many institutions across the past year, where will colleges and universities concentrate their efforts moving forward? The answers appear to center on developing the “middle tier” of the giving pyramid as a platform for future major gifts. With this in mind, Quincy University will be working this year to educate mid-level donors on “what it means to give”. And after successfully pivoting to virtual engagement during COVID, Lycoming College is now looking past the pandemic to focus on increasing the engagement of donors who are currently in the middle tier, to start building support for the college’s future priorities. Lycoming’s Executive Vice President is working to focus his team on the middle of the giving pyramid today “to create the next generation” of top-of-pyramid donors, even if this investment doesn’t produce large gifts right away.
Clearly, the second half of 2020 did not turn into the universal “doom and gloom” period that many in higher-ed. advancement were expecting. At EAB, we’ve seen some very promising giving trends since March of last year, and our partner institutions have undertaken some truly impressive, innovative transformations in how they carry out the business of philanthropy. These have been – and continue to be – extremely trying times for higher education in all of the segments and markets we serve, and both the President and CAO of Holy Names University agreed: “This is not a time to cut revenue-producing areas such as advancement!”
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