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Institutional Advancement

These have been challenging times for individuals and organisations alike. The pandemic has changed the landscape for us all. Many are struggling financially – individually or institutionally. For those in the profession of advancing their institutions, the roadmap has altered beyond recognition.

Advancement Defined

Institutional Advancement (now Advancement) has historically referred to those departments within higher education: alumni relations, fundraising, marketing and communications (ideally with student recruitment and enrollment management as partners). Yet, the concept can also be applied to schools, non-educational institutions, charities, non-profits, membership-based organisations, even businesses.

The bottom line is that they are all concerned with the overall brand and image of their institution, and the key to success is their ability to build and retain positive relationships with external and internal audiences, be they alumni, donors, students, staff, members, clients.

Donor Cultivation and Solicitation Redefined

So, imagine how it was just over a year ago. Gone is the ability to organise traditional, ‘feelgood’ evocative public and private events such as lectures, receptions, private views, campus visits. Domestic and international travel have been severely restricted. Advancement professionals are now having to hold face-to-face donor cultivation and stewardship meetings virtually. Phone calls, Zoom or Teams meetings – internal and external – virtual events (lectures, reunions etc) are the new normal. The emotive, inspirational written word and website have become even more important.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Covid lockdowns have afforded more time for some inner strategic reflection, greater focus on back-office operations such as databases, prospect research, portfolio reviews, tweaking and enhancing marketing and communication, silent phase campaign planning for the public launch of a new fundraising campaign, and other analyses and strategies which might help to move the institution forward post-pandemic. Institutions can no longer rely on ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ Now is the time to make the model better and indeed more future proofed.

Fundraiser and Donor Relationships in the ‘New Normal’

There has been a flurry of articles on institutional relationships and the pandemic, fundraising during the covid crisis, surveys of practitioners, advice, philanthropy during Covid (see links below).

One LinkedIn post by Ben Morton-Wright, Founder and Group CEO of Global Philanthropic caught my eye in particular because he talked about the importance of emotional vs transactional relationships with our stakeholders during the pandemic and what it means for philanthropy.

Now, I know Ben from my early Advancement days in the UK when the concept was in its infancy compared to USA counterparts (where I cut my Advancement teeth), and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

I’d like to take his concept further. How can Advancement maintain the ‘intimacy’ of the relationship between fundraiser and donors/donor prospects in the absence of traditional means of engagement?

I’m focusing mainly on fundraising, but I have also spoken with professionals within my broader definition of Advancement. Most are working for a university; however, some have left education to join a charity or the arts. For data privacy reasons I will anonymise them.

Here’s what they are telling me:

NB works as a major gifts manager at a leading UK university. I asked how she was coping with keeping her donors and prospects engaged during lockdown. After the first lockdown was lifted in June 2020, NB and her philanthropy colleagues started to virtually meet their prospects using that lockdown easing to reconnect and catch up. It was initially strange to have to rely on phoning people in her prospect pool or having a video meeting. It got easier and more natural the more ‘calls’ she made, and she reminded me that donors and prospects are in the same boat. I’ve never been one who liked to do a ‘cold call’ by phone to get a meeting with a prospect. I almost always secured meetings with an introductory email tailored to the prospect’s interests.

According to NB, you need to be sensitive to the prospect’s current financial position, which may have been adversely affected by the UK lockdowns (the second October-December, the third in early January 2021). The bottom line for now: ask how they are coping, not ask for money. This is of course a double-edged sword. Institutions rely on the ability to generate income from external sources, be they donations, membership subscriptions, student income, sales.

CA was head of alumni relations at the same UK university before taking on corporate development work in the arts. She is now senior corporate partnerships manager (membership and philanthropy) in a London multi-arts cultural and exhibition centre.

According to CA, the arts sector has taken a real beating during the pandemic: As a whole, the sector has faced a £14B shortfall in charity income through private support. For some years prior to the pandemic, supporter audiences were ignored. Development offices struggled in terms of marketing and communication with internet impact ignored. According to CA, arts fundraising is not black and white; the business model is flawed. Covid has exposed all that. At CA’s organisation the now focus is on doing more for less and membership retention.

FD is development director at a small Oxbridge University college. She says that keeping relationships with donors is slightly easier with a smaller cohort. Unfortunately, to save the College from financial ruin, she had to furlough staff, including the relationship manager (major gift officer). She and the president of the college picked up the baton and had phone calls/zoom calls with as many donors as possible on a rolling basis. She increased comms substantially to all constituencies. This resulted in increased giving in the last year (now slowing this financial year).

I also asked how she, as the development director, is keeping staff morale high. She says: ‘I’ve sent regular updates to my team, we have a WhatApp group for sharing fun items as well as College news. I’ve had a few team sessions with everyone online to review ongoing work together, whether or not the staff member is furloughed. At Christmas we had an online ‘cook along’ to make the very special mince pie recipe which is from the mother of one team member – we all love her mince pies! We’ve continued to send birthday cards and flowers and I’ve sent gifts at Easter and Christmas.’

And so, personalised touches like that can go a long way in keeping staff motivated and on message.

Looking across the pond, I asked my good friend SG how the pandemic has changed the way his institution connects with the university and its alumni. SG is President and CEO of a US Big 10 university’s alumni association which provides benefits and services for 500,000 living alumni. Think American college football, cheerleaders, bonfires, homecoming events. How do you rekindle that campus spirit with no stadia audiences, tailgate parties, parades and pageantry?

SG tells me: ‘It’s been a tough year, but it does seem that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve actually increased engagement by going big with virtual events, mostly educational. Alumni seem to appreciate it. And, our fundraising numbers for the alumni association have stayed positive.’ The association has been refurbishing its campus-based alumni centre. Once the building can safely reopen following the pandemic, the association looks forward to welcoming alumni and visitors alike. Until then, one can take a virtual tour of the building.

MH also worked in higher education. He is now Major Donor Manager for a London-based medical research charity, joining just after the start of the first lockdown. He says things have been ‘interesting’: relationships have changed as people get used to ‘meeting’ online. At first online meetings felt really stilted. You can’t pick up wealth indicator signs in quite the same way. As we all have become used to meeting this way, behaviour has relaxed: less business-like and more chattier. Dress code formalities have gone in a rather refreshing way.

Within a lockdown context, the charity has taken on a new business focus. Before Covid, charities in general hadn’t really seen major gifts as ‘products’ to sell. For MH this has meant focusing on engaging lower end, regular donors to move them to major giving. New messaging has also been key. Where donors might think the crisis is over, the approach now is ‘you have helped us weather the storm. Now we need to call on your help again. It’s about the future.’

And so, I hope these little snippets from the lockdown working lives of former colleagues and friends will give heart to those seeking to advance their institutions going forward post-pandemic.

A word of caution though. With tightened budgets and external funding streams lessened, top brass may opt for a more streamlined, home-based approach, foregoing the expense of international travel, lunches with prospects, events and colleague interaction. If this is the ‘new normal’ going forward, I would struggle. I remain a technophobe. A machine can’t really create the intimacy of a human relationship. Call me a dinosaur.

I’ll share the views of donors and philanthropists in a further blog.

How Orchard Fundraising Can Help

If you have a project which you think we may be able to assist you with, need some advice on major donor fundraising, alumni relations, and/or generally advancing your organisation, then please do get in touch with us for a free initial consultation.

Further readings

Reggie Simpson, Associate Orchard Fundraising

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