COVID-19 Higher Education Marketing

Fundraising Lessons from the Age of Covid

By Peter Toran \ May 10, 2021

Is there anything to learn, or should we just turn the page? 

Silver linings are overrated. Sometimes, dark clouds have no redeeming features, and there’s no greater proof of that than the year we’ve just endured. No amount of new recipes tried, hobbies begun, walks taken or books read can soften the impact the pandemic has had on every aspect of our lives. 

But while there’s no sugarcoating the experience, there’s solace to be found in acts large and small — from the heroic work of frontline workers to individual gestures of kindness. And we can hope for lessons to be learned, or relearned, in everything from health care and education to supply chains and government leadership.

One area for possible lessons is philanthropy. How did people respond during a time of great need, scarcity, and uncertainty? It’s logical to expect two polar-opposite outcomes:

  • Of course people rose to the challenge. If not now, when?
  • Of course people cut back on their giving. Who knew how long this would last or how personal finances would be affected?

As it turns out, the answer is … mixed. 

First, the good news: According to the Blackbaud Institute’s annual Charitable Giving Report, overall giving grew 2% year-over-year in 2020 for their 8,833 participating nonprofit organizations. That’s less than the 5.3% increase realized over the previous three years. But in light of everything — and considering that the last time giving decreased year-over-year was, understandably, during the Great Recession of 2008-09 — any increase at all is a testament to our collective good will.

But not all sectors fared well. As you would expect, Blackbaud reports that Human Services saw the largest annual increase at 12.3%. At the same time, higher education, one of idfive’s speciality areas, experienced a 5.4% decrease, even as many community colleges saw record increases.

What, if anything, can we take away from these contradictory trends? As often happens, it’s likely that the lessons to be learned are the ones we already know. Based on the data and from what we’ve gathered anecdotally from our clients, it’s a good time to be reminded of these three core tenets of effective fundraising. 

1.Make it urgent.

Nothing says “urgent” like a deadly pandemic. That built-in sense of emergency likely helped community colleges, Brian Flahaven, interim vice president of strategic partnerships for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told Inside HIgher Ed. “My feeling is that community colleges were really good at focusing on, ‘We need support to help students now.'”

Of course, creating urgency isn’t as easy when you’re raising money for a building or a long-term capital campaign. But tactics such as Giving Tuesday and limited-time matching fund challenges can inject a sense of immediacy into any campaign. So, too, can messaging that underscores the ticking clock: “Every semester that goes by without a new science lab, hundreds of students miss out on a possible research career” (a private message limited to individual donors, as you never want to publicize an existing deficiency). 

2. Make it personal.

Yes, this is Fundraising 101, but sometimes it gets lost amidst the pressures of quarterly goals and multi-million dollar campaigns. 

As Alan Cantor shared in the Harvard Business Review, he was moved to donate to his local YMCA, where he is a member, when he received a letter from the CEO explaining that they would be forced to furlough most of their employees because of Covid. But for those members who had the financial ability to make a donation, he added, all funds would be used to cover furloughed staff members’ full health insurance premiums. Given that the letter recipients all knew the staff on some level, this was clearly a personal — and likely effective — approach. 

There’s also the danger of being too personal, as Cantor also shared.

There’s an apocryphal story already circulating among fundraisers about an unnamed university that forgot to cancel its scheduled late-March planned-giving mailing to alumni. As a result, a letter went out declaring, in the midst of the pandemic, “There’s no better time than now to revisit your estate planning!”

Personal, yes. Urgent as well. Smart, not so much — timing matters too.     

3. Make it simple.

Cantor’s Y example is also a reminder of the virtue of simplicity, especially as it relates to outcomes. Your gift = a staff member’s health insurance. 

The virtue of simplicity may help explain the current fundraising success of community colleges, whose missions are often easy to articulate and whose impact can be tangible. Case in point: Milwaukee Area Technical College started a Healthcare Heroes Fund to help students pay for licensing exams and enter the healthcare field during a time of great need. In the first two quarters of this fiscal year, the College increased giving by 147% year-over-year. 

Call it an elevator speech, value proposition, or campaign promise, your ability to succinctly state why a donor should support your cause — and choose your organization from among all their other options — will be a key ingredient to a successful outcome.

As we look forward to putting all-things Covid behind us, there’s value in being reminded of fundraising fundamentals that work in ordinary and extraordinary times. Not because all clouds have silver linings, but because there will always be clouds. And thankfully, as the past year has shown us, there will always be generous people ready to help weather the storm. 

Peter Toran
Lead Strategist
Peter Toran
Lead Strategist

Peter is unequivocally the coolest person in the office. Having served in university leadership and on executive boards, Peter has a lot of experience in a lot of areas. And he helps gain our clients’ trust and support from Day One. Peter is also an expert on enrollment and content strategy and institutional branding and communications. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, but he’s exceptionally good at bringing us artisanal bread on Friday’s paired with well-baked puns.