Published: April 21, 2021

How to drive results with donors during COVID and beyond

Last March, fundraisers in higher education were facing a bleak future. With no more early morning coffee meetings or dinners with donors possible, ‘road warriors’ were grounded indefinitely. Only 17% of advancement professionals surveyed in June believed they would meet their fundraising goals for FY21.

Like so many other professionals who lean heavily on in-person contact, development officers were forced to find new, innovative ways to connect with constituents. As they began pioneering ideas for virtual engagement, confidence began to grow; and by January 2021, 65% of fundraisers felt confident they would meet their FY21 goals.

Read on for creative ideas that two business schools have implemented to maintain strong connections with alumni, donors and prospects. Some initiatives have been so successful, they will continue well beyond the pandemic.

Filling the void of in-person networking

Virtual events are now more appealing to alumni than they were before the pandemic, according to a new study. Indeed, many schools have experienced a boost in attendance from pre-pandemic levels. And with increased turnout, eight in 10 development officers feel confident about building relationships through virtual events.

In pre-COVID times, when the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business hosted alumni happy hours, only a handful of individuals would typically show up. Now, Leeds sees 100+ alumni attend virtually. As a result, virtual happy hours will be hosted monthly and include fun, creative breakouts for individuals to connect in a meaningful way. 

Transforming ‘road warriors’ into ‘Zoom warriors’

As in-person donor visits and board meetings transitioned to virtual formats, donors and development officers began seeing the efficiencies. Constituents with constrained time or resources no longer had to block-off an entire evening or hop on a plane—engagement became quicker and more accessible.

“Donors are still giving, and we are having conversations over Zoom for transformational gifts and gifts of all sizes,” says Rachel Morrell, associate dean and chief development officer of external relations at Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

In addition to more convenient conversations with development officers, donors have had access to individual meetings with Marshall’s dean and also with faculty members, providing a broader range of personal engagement with the school than was possible before.

Busy board members have increased their engagement with the convenience of being virtual, says Morrell. “More board members are attending meetings and actively participating in discussions, and I think we will see a hybrid model going forward with a combination of in-person and virtual meetings.”

Providing thought leadership on timely topics

Weeks after the pandemic shut down in-person classes at the University of Colorado Boulder, Leeds launched the COVID-19 Webinar Series, which quickly expanded into a cross-campus collaboration resulting in 33 webinars and 40,565 constituents engaged from March through December 2020.

Currently in its eighth installment, the series features informative, expert commentary from alumni and world-renowned faculty across campus. Each presentation provides frank and timely insights for life during and after the pandemic.

Development officers have been able to capitalize on efforts like these by encouraging their prospects to join the webinar and following-up for feedback; they also gain warm leads of individuals who are newly engaged with the school.

In addition, the annual giving team leveraged these webinars by targeting those who had attended but had not donated to the school that year. They sent an appeal thanking the alumni for their support during COVID and asked to extend that support financially for students in need. As a result, they saw 17% of those non-donors donate.

A wide variety of webinars have emerged at schools everywhere. At Marshall, “Tommy Talks” is a series for alumni, donors and the community featuring faculty experts discussing topical questions of interest. And Leeds’ “Virtual Conversation Series”—intimate faculty talks in a small-group format—allows the advancement team to provide niche programming that appeals more strongly to a smaller segment of alumni and donors.

Making the dean more accessible

The Marshall School featured their new business school dean on multiple online channels. First, they started a webinar series called “Dean’s Dialogue” where Dean Geoff Garrett explores various subjects with high-level executive guests including Zoom Founder Erik Yuan. Dean Garrett is also active on Twitter, with alumni and donors encouraged to follow him.

“With a new Dean, we are seeing an uptick in giving and gift conversations,” says Morrell.

Trisha McKean, assistant dean of advancement at Leeds, adds, “In the pandemic we found some prospects and donors with more time on their hands, and we have been able to connect with some hard-to-reach constituents, which we are thrilled about and has already yielded results. Normalizing not having to rely on the dean’s travel schedule to make intimate connections has been a big win too.”

Helping faculty source speakers

Five years ago, advancement leaders at Leeds built the “Leeds Executive Experience” program to provide a high-level, on-campus experience for executive speakers, employers, board members, donors and alumni.

When operations shifted online, they leaned into the Executive Experience to support all-virtual engagements. As part of the shift, faculty were encouraged to submit requests to the Advancement Office for help in identifying guest speakers to bring learning objectives to life. It has become a valuable opportunity for faculty, prospects, students and advancement officers alike.  

“Cultivate internally as much as you cultivate externally,” says McKean. Over time, she says faculty have realized the benefit of partnering with her team—as well as the benefit to the school. Some faculty have become “super users” who rely on the process to fill their virtual classrooms with compelling speakers.

“Instead of going to their personal networks, the world has opened up to faculty by letting us make recommendations. With the pandemic, we have also normalized international engagement in the classroom,” says McKean.

“The quality of the speakers has been great, and Advancement has been wonderful in sourcing folks that match with the topics I cover each class…students have benefitted greatly from their interactions with the speakers,” says Professor Janet Bercovitz of her entrepreneurship class.

For super-user Doug Bennett, who teaches leadership to MBAs, he sees it as a win-win for students and everyone else involved. 

“To have speakers who…can relate their life experiences in the business world strengthens the academic principles that we discuss in class,” says Bennett. “And, naturally, when [a speaker] participates with students…their tie to the school is strengthened.”

What’s ahead?

Looking to the future, when in-person interactions are safe once again, there will be a need for both road warriors and Zoom warriors. Donor engagement will likely encompass a blend of virtual and in-person interactions—with more ways than ever to connect with prospects, alumni and donors based on their preferences and accessibility.