Higher education fundraising is even more critical as colleges and universities navigate the unexpected and unpredictable financial situation caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic. During a time marked by physical separation, institutions and their development offices need to find creative ways to stay in touch with donors and potential donors while also having compassion and empathy for what these individuals are facing during the pandemic.
Scott Roberts is the president of the UConn Foundation, which serves the University of Connecticut. Tim Hill works for Blackbaud, an EdTech company that supports advancement and alumni development across the higher education campus.
Hill and Roberts are not sure when higher education will be back to normal. UConn is beginning to plan for reopening, but hasn’t set a date as yet. Roberts noted that there is a lot of work to be done to make this happen. Hill is optimistic that if institutions which follow the CDC guidelines and take appropriate steps, students can be welcomed back to a new normal in the fall.
Internal and External Challenges
Foundations are facing various layers of challenges involving internal and external situations. The internal challenges include budgetary concerns due to the economic downturn created by the pandemic. Most foundations depend on investment earnings to pay for staff and events. In addition, there’s anxiety among foundation staff regarding uncertainty about their roles; for example, if they work in event management, what happens to their position if the foundation can no longer host events? And how can they pivot to virtual events?
There also are challenges among front-line fundraisers in relation to their metrics and goals. What happens if they cannot meet with potential donors? How are they able to raise money? UConn has changed their back-of-house software in how they track constituent interactions, expanding the categories to include virtual meetings along with phone calls, emails and face-to-face meetings.
These challenges extend to donors, alumni and stakeholders. How does the institution continue to be optimistic about the institution’s work while also being compassionate and empathetic about what the individual is dealing with, whether that’s a professional or financial reversal or a loved one whose health has been affected in the pandemic?
Role of Technology in Pandemic-Era Fundraising
Any technology company that is working in higher education fundraising should consider itself a practitioner in all things advancement because the company’s team gives counsel and helps on the technology side. Additionally, they need to ensure that their technology platforms are scalable, have a high level of up-time and feature extensive functionality.
During this period, it’s key that customers get the resources they need. These include the individuals responsible for the advancement services as well as those who run the technology for these departments. Blackbaud is trying to offer technology that helps development officers stay in closer touch with their constituents, incorporates intelligent analytics to segment their market, and gives them access to additional resources from other partners and industry experts.
Staying on Message
Many similarities exist between the foundations and the universities in how they reach out to constituents. There’s currently a heavy emphasis on social media, in addition to emails and other types of communication.
Stakeholders want to hear that their alma mater is making a difference for students, faculty, alumni, other constituents and the state. Constant communication is important; this is not a time to be quiet. This is a time to connect with constituents more than ever before.
Internal and external meetings also have been shifting online. The development staff is hosting virtual happy hours with staff in the evenings just to have face-time with one another. In one of these events, the university president joined and toasted everyone, thanking them for their efforts.
Additionally, many institutions are starting to hold more virtual events. This could include an online panel discussion involving the leaders of the institution. For example, the CEO of UConn Health has presented a virtual talk about health-related initiatives and ways that people can remain safe during this time. The Foundation also is featuring UConn’s coaches because top constituents are interested in the institution’s athletic programs and learning about recruits.
There also are a lot of unique ways to utilize technology to stay connected during this time. For example, Roberts has gone on a virtual walk with a major donor. These novel experiences make people feel connected.
Hill said the industry—customers as well as technology companies–has been using virtual meetings for a number of years. Having said that, the personal connection is important in times like these because people are hungrier for interaction, and the person-to-person touch makes a huge difference. He noted that major gift officers who are reaching out to donors are asking them how they are doing in their lives and what’s happening before getting into official messaging. This creates that one-to-one connection that means a lot to the donor and breaks down barriers.
The UConn Foundation has done research on social media and also tracks stories that people are interested in. Part of this is designed to ensure that the Foundation can stay in front of constituents with relevant stories.
Additionally, development officers and development-related industries tend to get most of their content from LinkedIn. Sharing stories that have impact locally, at the state-level and nationally resonate with readers. With that said, Hill noted that in order to reach alumni, foundations should use all social media channels because they are important avenues for people who are hungry for stories.
Blackbaud’s global marketing team uses a variety of technology platforms to broadcast content through omni-channels that provides one post with similar messaging across multiple channels. These campaigns are focused on areas such as student scholarships and awards, thought-leadership around best practices in advancement or analytics to target. Hill noted that his company also measures engagement with these posts. Great content is only as important as whether it’s read and by whom.
UConn also uses multiple channels to get information out. They have an in-house marketing/ communications team and partner with the university’s marketing/communications team to push stories out that will be inspirational to constituents.
In the wake of the pandemic, UConn Foundation has focused on two funding priorities. The first is relief efforts related to the pandemic, whether that’s supporting UConn Health or research that is trying to help solve this global issues. The second is creating a student emergency fund to help students who are experiencing financial distress due to the pandemic.
Hill said there is a pressing need across multiple fronts in any university—no matter the size or mission—that spans the students, staff, faculty and administration. He complimented how institutions are making the extra effort to support their students. These emergency funds have gained a lot of support from alumni and other donors.
There’s also a lot of uncertainty among students about how they are going to pay for the fall semester. Hill noted that scholarships will be important because it directly impacts the student’s life.
Restricted vs. Unrestricted Gifts
Roberts said 90-95 percent of UConn Foundation’s donor gifts are restricted. He said as long as these gifts align with the university’s purpose, this type of gift is fine. Most donors want to support something that they are passionate about. If their donation is to support a student emergency fund, that gift allows the university enough flexibility to determine which student needs it and for what purpose. This still meets the donor’s desire of helping students.
In any situation, the foundation shouldn’t identify the priorities for the university. Instead, the foundation should listen to the university to hear the priorities and then implement all efforts to help the university raise funds to support the implementation of those priorities.
Hill says that Blackbaud’s support of their clients hasn’t changed. The company already has made a tremendous investment in its infrastructure, which includes cloud software, coupled with software that can be housed on local campuses. Other foundations’ work is hosted through hosting systems. The company also has focused primarily on the security of its systems since the company handles the actual transactions of those gifts.
The company also has tried to provide customers with examples of best practices and thought leadership around what the foundations are doing on a daily basis. Additionally, the company tries to get resources to customers in a digestible way in partnership with these other organizations.
Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders
Three takeaways from Roberts:
- Be sensitive and empathetic about what people are going through. Don’t make assumptions.
- Be optimistic and positive. Be encouraging and inspirational in telling the institution’s story about what’s going on.
- Don’t be afraid to offer people an opportunity to help.
Three takeaways from Hill:
- Stay focused on the institutional mission and give constituents a reminder of the mission and the impact the institution is having.
- People are hungry for communications and content. Ask people about what is happening in their life before talking about the institutional needs.
- Take time to take care of yourself and your team. Ask team members how they are doing with the issues and challenges they are facing.
- Higher education institutions have not reached the new normal yet. However, through following the CDC guidelines and doing their own planning, institutions can begin to move forward past this crisis.
- Foundations are facing a number of internal issues. These include declining endowments due to the recession, concerns by staff members about their jobs and changing metrics in relation to engaging with donors.
- Foundations need to be optimistic about the institution’s future while also being empathetic about the donor’s situation, which may involve financial loss or health issues related to the pandemic.
- Many institutions are turning to technology to remain engaged with donors. These can range from meetings, presentations by institutional leaders or athletic coaches, or doing walking tours with potential donors.
- Technology companies that support fundraising efforts can play an important role through identifying best practices, serving as thought-leaders, and providing cutting-edge technology. Additionally, these companies need to be continually upgrading security since they often are part of a gift’s transaction.
- Social media can offer institutions and fundraisers a way to share stories and campaigns with a variety of donors across multiple channels. These stories should highlight what the institution is doing during the pandemic, including how it’s helping the campus community, the state, the nation and the world.
- Foundations are focusing on several funding priorities. The first is support for efforts to protect individuals’ health and stem the pandemic. The second is an emergency student relief fund to help students who are having financial issues during the pandemic. Scholarship support also will be important going into the fall semester since many students may not otherwise be able to financially afford college.
Links to Articles, Apps, or websites mentioned during the interview:
Guests Social Media Links:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertsunlv/detail/contact-info/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/timothyhill/
The Change Leader’s Social Media Links:
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- Website: https://changinghighered.com
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