Charting a path to fundraising success: Lessons from Penn State's crisis

In November 2011, I was finishing my 15th year as senior vice president for development and alumni relations at Penn State University, when suddenly without warning a child sexual abuse scandal on campus turned our world upside down.

Within days, two university officials were indicted on perjury charges, a popular president was removed from office, an iconic coach was fired live on national television, and the governing board leadership changed. Penn State’s darkest days lie ahead.

The crisis and its aftermath raged not for days or weeks, but over several years, and began at the half-way point of a $2-billion campaign. A shaken-to-the-core staff, overwhelming financial expenses, a stunned donor constituency, a stream of lawsuits, student enrollment worries, a credit rating downgrade and constant scrutiny by the media were just some of the challenges that Penn State faced during that time. Do those challenges sound familiar? Some or most of them are being faced by every institution in this time of COVID-19.

While nothing may ever again match the scale of challenges that organizations now face, the strategies which enabled Penn State to complete its campaign on schedule and over goal have relevance at this time. They are proof that despite all your woes, you can still chart a path to fundraising success for your own organization.

Here are 10 actions to consider in moving your organization toward success during turmoil and uncertainty.

1. Use two-way communication: Institutions and their leaders are sending many (perhaps too many) outbound updates to key constituencies and are frequently conferring with their governing boards. But more outreach opportunities need to be created for major donors and key volunteers to converse directly with presidents, chancellors, and others at the top. Providing insider briefings to key players was essential to moving forward at Penn State. Effective, small-scale “donor investor calls” of 15-20 individuals in video-based sessions help leverage your president’s time and effectiveness.

2. Survey donor attitudes: During the Penn State crisis, we surveyed our constituency frequently to obtain empirical data on individual attitudes toward giving, volunteering and level of affinity. For advancement offices today, the regular use of surveys seeking a pulse on donor psychology and future giving behavior and trends is critical to determining messaging, donor preferences and predicting gift income going forward.

3. Be financially transparent: The financial hits institutions face now are extraordinary, and for some represent an existential threat. Penn State faced unexpected expenses into the hundreds of millions of dollars during our crisis. The CFO at Penn State took to the road and became a great partner with the Office of Development, reassuring donor groups around the country of the university’s financial stability. As deficits become more pronounced during the fallout of COVID-19, your “donor investors” will appreciate such briefings and transparency.

4. Analyze your data: Early on at Penn State, we began to analyze inbound messages received from alumni and quickly determined a very strong correlation between past giving and an expression of positivity toward the institution. More than 75% of donors with lifetime giving of $25,000 or more expressed positive sentiments, while 66% of those individuals with no giving history were negative in their outlook. Makes intuitive sense, right? But, using analytics now can help your institution determine things like who is giving to institutional priorities, who is increasing their giving in a down economy, and who contributed to an emergency support or research fund. This data can then be used to set future strategy and solidify your position coming out of this crisis.

5. Feature volunteer leadership: In a crisis, leadership means everything, especially from those who aren’t paid staff, but who contribute their time out of love and loyalty. I was blessed with a remarkable campaign chair, a man of integrity, purpose and commitment who championed the core messages of our campaign. He and his wife also increased their campaign gift after the crisis began, signaling confidence in the institution. It’s a good time now to consider how to feature volunteer leadership in your future messaging strategies. Give your most prominent, articulate volunteers a special platform.

6. Double-down on mission: Institutions that navigate these times most successfully will be those who have a clear and consistent purpose, communicate it often, and demonstrate charitable impact with good storytelling. The Penn State campaign was titled “For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students.” The emphasis on students became a North Star and rallying cry for donors, volunteers and staff. Now is a good time to think carefully about how you communicate your mission and strengthen your brand identity. 

7. Ask with confidence: Now is not the time to be timid in asking friends of our institutions to consider their support of it. In many respects, our cases and the reasons we exist have never been stronger than right now. During the Penn State crisis, we established a mantra of continuing business as usual and “letting the donor decide.” Solicitations increased several months after the initial shock had subsided. It’s one reason the campaign exceeded its goal. Present economic circumstances don’t impact everyone’s ability or desire to give. At GG+A, we continue to see our clients ask for and receive seven- and eight-figure commitments. People still want to help. Give them that opportunity.

 8. Present the facts: I applaud Johns Hopkins University for recently sharing the cold reality of its pending financial challenges and encourage other organizations to do the same with their key constituencies. Your constituents know that times are tough. It makes no sense to sugar coat or hide it. At Penn State, a special website devoted to crisis-related news was developed. For alumni, who often look first to their alumni magazine for information about their university, the Penn Stater alumni magazine printed both the good and bad news during the crisis, and in doing so maintained integrity with its readers.

9. Mobilize your alumni: One of the great strengths that many educational institutions have is a large and loyal alumni body. Now is the time to mobilize and engage them as never before. The Penn State Alumni Association gave its members a list of 26 tangible things they could do to move the university on the path to success. Today, the most astute advancement programs are crafting special COVID-related online educational programming for their alumni, asking alumni scholarship donors to write letters of encouragement to their student beneficiaries, and seeking alumni to hire their recent graduates.

10. Care for your team: The work of your advancement team has never been more difficult than now. Maintaining morale and a robust esprit de corps is vital for success. Mental health concerns are real. Everyone is Zoomed-out. In 2011, my highest priority was the well-being of my team. Besides countless town halls, I engaged stress management consultants and sponsored educational seminars which weren’t focused on our work per se, but rather on personal growth and values to empower the staff. We focused on the silver linings of a crisis and the strength which comes from scaling insurmountable circumstances.

Over 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt offered these words of encouragement during a different trying time: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” They seem appropriate for us in the advancement profession today.


If you need assistance moving your organization toward success amid this moment of turmoil and uncertainty, contact Rod at rkirsch@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Rodney P. Kirsch

Senior Vice President

Rodney P. Kirsch, Senior Vice President, brings a wealth of experience in alumni relations and higher education fundraising to the firm. Over his 34-year career in university advancement, he has provided executive leadership in raising more than $5 billion of philanthropy. Rod is currently Senior Vice President Emeritus for Development…