6 Tips for Annual Giving Amid COVID-19

Posted on 03/22/2020

While just about everyone has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is having a particular impact on educational institutions. Most colleges, universities, and schools have sent students home and are figuring out how to get through the spring semester virtually. School advancement teams have their own unique set of challenges as they try to determine how to engage and communicate with alumni, parents, and donors. Annual giving, as a key department within advancement, has faced some of the most urgent questions.

On March 20, AGN held a virtual panel on Navigating Your Annual Fund Through the COVID-19 Pandemic to address these issues and share perspectives for responding to the crisis. AGN’s Principal and Founder Dan Allenby led an interactive discussion among the live audience and three industry leaders: Skylar Beaver (The Lawrenceville School), Jenny Daigle Benoit (Penn State University), and Emily Kernan (University of Pennsylvania).

Here are the 6 key takeaways from the recent panel. You can also watch a complete recording of it here.

  1. Prioritize “connecting” over “soliciting.” Although many institutions have already prepared appeals to go out in the coming weeks, some are hitting pause—at least temporarily. Instead, they’re focusing on simply “checking in” with alumni, parents, and donors. In other words, no asking for money. Many gift officers have had success texting or conducting virtual meetings with their prospects, and some are finding creative ways to let donors hear from institutional leaders. William & Mary invited members of their community to a virtual conversation with the university president, who broadcast live from her home.
  2. Reassess your funding priorities. While unrestricted support is a common priority for many educational institutions, some organizations are adjusting their focus to more urgent and immediate needs, such as those related to the impact of the pandemic. Penn State University shifted their efforts to the Student Care & Advocacy Emergency Fund, which provides essential support to students during times of need.
  3. Don’t rely on direct mail. With things changing day-by-day, print mail may cause more issues than it’s worth—at least for now. Aside from the fact that postal delivery times have slowed and many lettershops and mail houses have shut down, the message that you convey in letters today may be irrelevant (or possibly even off-putting) when it arrives in mailboxes two weeks from now. Electronic channels like email and social media are more nimble and easier to adjust when things change in the environment.
  4. Pick up the phone. Although phone contact rates have been declining across the industry for years, there’s a higher likelihood that your alumni, parents, and donors will answer your calls right now. For one thing, most of them are home! The Air Force Academy Foundation’s calling program is seeing current contact rates over 80 percent and pledge rates higher than 25 percent.
  5. Consider alternatives to your giving day. With an estimated half of colleges, universities, and independent schools planning giving days this time of year, many are cancelling or postponing until a later date. Even those who are continuing with their plans are adjusting their messages to be sensitive to the current situation. Boston College decided to change their “Day of Giving” to a “Day of Caring,” during which students, faculty, alumni, parents, and friends are encouraged to share stories that demonstrate care for the community.
  6. Stay connected with your team. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, so be patient with your colleagues as they work through things. Practice kindness and look for creative ways to smile together and have some fun. The University of Pennsylvania’s annual fund team held a “virtual happy hour” after work as a way to decompress and put their concerns aside for a little while.

The great advancement trailblazer Si Seymour once wrote that what ultimately compels people to be philanthropic is their desire to be a worthwhile member of a worthwhile group. In our work, and particularly at times like these, it is our responsibility to remind the members of our community that they belong to something good. So celebrate the great things about your organization. It’s okay to talk about its needs, but don’t let them overshadow its strengths and the things that make it special. People want to be associated with a winning cause—especially when times are tough.

 


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