Q-and-A with McGill University Advancement leader Marc Weinstein

On April 17, GG+A hosted a webinar with guest Marc Weinstein, Vice-Principal of University Advancement at McGill University in Montreal, entitled “Managing a Campaign During the COVID-19 Crisis: Made by McGill Responds.

In the webinar, Marc shared with GG+A President Suzanne Hilser-Wiles how one of Canada’s best known institutions of higher learning has pivoted in its campaign during the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is an opportunity to reflect and recalibrate our thinking as a unit and to accelerate our virtual engagement opportunities for alumni and donors,” Marc shared. “This is a chance for us to step back and evaluate what we are doing and enhance our performance in all areas.”

We followed up with Marc after the webinar to answer attendees’ questions. Read on for an edited transcript of his responses.

Q. Can you share the link to the campaigns you are running now in response to the crisis? Assuming there is a website.

Yes, McGill is featuring both campaigns prominently on the campaign website: https://giving.mcgill.ca/.
We include a link to McGill’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund and to McGill’s Student Emergency Support Fund there.

Q. Does your campaign involve endowment fundraising? If so, can you talk about how you’re approaching the asks for the endowment now and in the wake of the pandemic?

Yes, McGill’s $2-billion campaign does involve endowment fundraising. In fact, building McGill’s endowment is a key internal objective of the campaign, along with expanding engagement. We expect that much of this endowment growth will come through planned gifts, and through hybrid gifts that combine an up-front expendable gift, and a plan to endow the relevant program through a bequest.

With all major gift asks in the present climate, whether endowed or expendable, we are proceeding with caution, and with great sensitivity to the mindset and circumstances of our donors. Of course, there are donors whose interests at the moment are purely in expendable funding for urgent needs, and we are grateful for that. But where we are finding willingness to continue longer-term conversations, we are not changing our approach with regards to asking for endowed funds.

McGill University Advancement’s strategy in general is not to frame asks around an objective of building the endowment, but on supporting the donor’s preferred cause in the way that makes the most sense. If this involves funding a Chair or a Research Institute that will endure over the long run, then we will ask for endowed funds (perhaps supplemented by expendable money to meet urgent needs and ramp up activities). Conversely, if the project will benefit more from a short-term injection of significant funding, we will propose an expendable gift. We also don’t have an external-facing endowment goal as part of our Campaign. In this way, our task is probably easier in the current climate than it is for pure endowment fundraising.

McGill also considers messaging that will make the case for endowed giving once the most urgent phase of the crisis is over. I think it behooves all of us to use the pandemic as an opportunity to emphasize to our community the critical value of research universities. Our institutions have the capacity to take a long view of global challenges, looking at the upstream causes of crises like the pandemic, and innovating new solutions before we reach the crisis phase (without the market pressures of industry, or the political timeframes of government).

If we do reach a crisis, as we have at the present moment, our accumulated strength and partnerships also allow us to pivot quickly and make a substantial contribution to new science and discovery. In this way, contributing to endowments is helping to ensure that universities continue to have this strength and capacity so we can respond effectively to the next crisis, whatever that may be, and for decades to come.

Q. Was the campaign launch referenced a silent phase or public launch?
It was a public launch, which took place on Sept. 26, 2019. We had been in the silent phase for several years before that.

Q. What is the smartphone software McGill is exploring to connect donors and beneficiaries?

Even before this crisis, McGill was exploring IT platforms that would enable us to craft and solicit video messages that could be personalized and sent to donors, volunteers, and other members of our community. Videos can be recorded by simply using smartphones or other devices and are then submitted to University Advancement, as the administrator, for vetting and packaging. The use of such software is garnering even more attention in the current environment as it allows for custom messages to be sent to donors from the beneficiaries of their support, using limited resources. Two companies offering these types of services are Thankview and Causevid.

Q. Have you used your campaign committee as a focus group yet during this time and if so, what are some questions you’ve asked them to gather feedback? To make sure your new initiatives will be relevant and productive for them? To collect ideas?

We are fortunate to have not just a Campaign Committee but also Faculty and Regional Advisory Boards who are championing McGill and our campaign. Given this, we have put a great deal of effort into aligning the information that each of these boards receives relevant to the current crisis and developing key questions we hope they can help us address. This process started with our Campaign Executive committee, who provided terrific advice on how to remain relevant by focusing on engaging our community and building our case around urgent and COVID-related priorities in the coming months. Some of the questions that have been (or will be) posed vary by volunteer group and include:

  • What innovations are you seeing that will help us to transition to our new global reality?
  • What have been your impressions as McGill alumni/parents/volunteers of the University’s response to the current crisis?
  • How can you help us raise funds for our faculty-specific priorities related to COVID-19?
  • We have heard from some of our volunteer leadership that this is a time to listen to our donors. Given this, how do you see your role as a champion for McGill and for the Campaign changing during this crisis?
  • How do we need to recalibrate our approach to be sensitive to our constituents’ current situation and the challenges facing our global community?
  • Are there any particular considerations for alumni of our faculty/in this region?

Q. Curious if you have thoughts for organizations (or schools) who are on the cusp of launching a new campaign soon, and/or on the cusp of launching the public phase of a campaign that has been in the silent phase for a couple of years. How might you think about advising organizations on the timing of a campaign launch and a campaign public launch?

One of the ways we prepared for our campaign launch was by establishing strong volunteer structures, including a Campaign Planning Advisory. This group was a precursor to our Campaign Cabinet and helped us define our campaign goals and priorities in the lead-up to our launch. Institutions that are facing the postponement of their public launch would do well to spend the extra time building or reinforcing volunteer structures in support of the campaign. As representative members of the philanthropic community, these volunteers will also be able to provide key guidance on the timing and nature of the launch and your fundraising activities during the quiet phase.

At McGill, we would recommend caution and patience with regards to any campaign launch. We have been quite surprised to see how generous the community has been during the pandemic, with strong support for our emergency relief funds, which can of course be due to the sense of urgency and immediacy built into these. With so much attention focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic and social crises, we need to wait for better days before we can expect our donors to return in droves to supporting more “everyday” issues such as University priorities. Best to focus attention and energies now on developing deeper connections with alumni and showcasing the institution’s strengths in advancing scientific and social efforts related to COVID-19.

We are experiencing a global health crisis and a global economic crisis, with global social implications. How institutions respond to these yin-yang, opposing yet complementary, issues will speak to our longer-term credibility as actors on the world stage of research and leadership.

Universities that are able to react and respond to this pandemic from both public health and public policy perspectives will emerge as global problem-solvers worthy of worldwide respect, attention and investment. Institutions contemplating their campaign launch might take these ideas into consideration.

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