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Filling fiscal year 2021’s proposal pipeline

August 26, 2020

Higher ed closed out FY2020 with less fundraising damage than many predicted. Fundraising returns ended up flat or higher at 41% of institutions by the end of the fiscal year.

Yet as we kick off FY2021, advancement faces a new, urgent threat: the shrinking of proposal pipelines due to FY2020’s slowdown in cultivation activity.


Chief advancement officers and AVPs are anticipating fewer closed proposals in FY2021
Chief advancement officers and AVPs are anticipating fewer closed proposals in FY2021

Visits declined precipitously in the last few months of FY2020 in the wake of stay-at-home orders, and overall visit counts for the year were down at nearly three-quarters of institutions.

While most gift officers transitioned fairly seamlessly into virtual visits—and many extended their reach to prospects they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see—advancement leaders are nevertheless bracing for this virtual cultivation to fail to translate into proposals across the next year.

In our recent survey of chief advancement officers and AVPs, 48.9% of respondents said they were expecting a decline in submitted proposals in FY2021. 61.1% are anticipating fewer closed proposals.

Across our research, my team found a twofold cause of the depletion in proposal pipelines.

First, gift officers’ contact-rate success is most pronounced among existing donors and prospects. They have had markedly less success among prospects in discovery, and as a result, many institutions have seen plummeting qualification rates.

Second, contact does not equal cultivation. “Wellness checks” proliferated across the spring, but far less common were substantive moves that brought prospects closer to the point of a proposal.

My team and I set out to uncover the strategies that higher ed advancement leaders were using to circumvent these challenges.

Strategy #1: Prioritize the warmest “cold” prospects for qualification

With so much noise in the digital space, gift officers have struggled to stand out from the crowd and win mindshare with new prospects.

Forward-thinking advancement leaders have circumvented these mindshare challenges by looking for indicators of warmth when prioritizing new prospects for outreach.

A discovery prospect’s social media engagement, digital event attendance, micro-volunteering, or mentorship participation all indicate pre-existing interest that gift officers can tap when choosing who to email for a Zoom call.

Giving can also be a powerful indicator. At Brandeis University, the development team looked to recent giving history to prioritize prospects for outreach. They began regularly pulling lists of new $1,000+ donors and putting them at the front of the line for gift officer outreach, stewardship, and possible referral to major gifts.

An important point to keep in mind: when looking for warm discovery prospects, timing matters. Warmth fades. Identifying a list of 100 digital event attendees from five months ago may not yield many returns since the enthusiasm from their experience will have long since dissipated.

Development leaders will be well-served by building recurring processes for pulling recent engagement and giving data. They should also build qualification follow-up plans before launching marquee digital events so that gift officers can move quickly in the aftermath.

Strategy #2: Equip gift officers with the tools they need to move cultivation forward

Spring’s campus closures stripped gift officers of some of the most powerful tools in their cultivation toolboxes. No longer could they bring donors to campus for a tour, or dinner with a dean, or coffee with a student.

Absent these cultivation crutches, many gift officers struggled to plot a path forward toward a proposal.

Now, advancement leaders are re-examining how they can equip gift officers with effective cultivation tools and enfranchise them to make moves rather than just light touches and check-ins.

Concordia University in Quebec has prioritized having prospects engage with students through, for example, delivering guest lectures via Zoom in classes.

Utah State University sent prospects “nudge” gifts, such as forget-me-nots from a local florist, that give gift officers a reason to get back on the phone and discuss next steps.

And Gonzaga University has focused on value-additive programming that meets prospects’ unique needs during the pandemic, such as virtual mass, career-focused webinars, and kids’ science projects and coloring pages.

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