Donor stewardship during the pandemic and beyond: Q-and-A with UToronto's Gillian Morrison

In the webinar, “Stewardship During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond,” guest Gillian Morrison, Assistant Vice-President for University Development at the University of Toronto, shares best practices that UToronto has identified for delivering stewardship across complex, matrixed organizations.

GG+A’s Kyle Gorden and Anne Kohn provide examples of stellar stewardship during this crisis. They also share best practices for exceeding the expectations of every donor in the receipt, acknowledgement, recognition, and stewardship of their gifts.

Gillian Morrison

Gillian Morrison

Here we share questions from webinar participants and answers from Gillian Morrison.

Q. Could you please send out the guiding principles that Gillian mentioned that her VP established at the time of onset? Those are very important.

  • Sober acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crisis.
  • Sensitivity and flexibility in our dealing with colleagues, alumni, donors, and friends who are personally affected.
  • Poise in the face of stress and uncertainty, recognizing that while we will undoubtedly be affected in the short term, we remain confident in our long-term aspirations.
  • Intensified commitment to engage individuals in the mission of our institution, its impact and leadership, and our plans for engagement and giving.

Q. For smaller advancement teams where there are only 1-2 staff members, sometimes the capacity to do multiple, innovative stewardship activities is not there. What would you say are one or two things that smaller teams should ensure they are doing during this pandemic? What should they focus their sometimes limited time on?

I would say there are three things small teams can prioritize. First, make sure that you’re staying in touch with people in ways that are supportive of their current circumstances. And that there’s continuity in that outreach.

Second, deliver trusted, accurate information to your constituencies about how your organization is responding to the pandemic. If you are at an institution conducting research or otherwise contributing to the response to COVID-19, find ways to share insights from that work with your donors and stakeholders. They’ll value receiving the insights from an organization they already have built trust with. You can also focus on delivering content that your donors are seeking at this time, whether that be opportunities to learn, support for coping, online workouts, virtual book clubs. If you are a small team in a larger institution, be sure to leverage content from across the institution.

Third, maintain your accountability requirements by making sure donors are getting the information they need about the impact of their gifts and about how your organization is continuing on with your vision because of their support. All donors want to know they are having an impact and your efforts to demonstrate mission continuity will be deeply valued at this time.

Q. How are you ensuring an outstanding virtual experience for your Chancellor- and Benefactor-level donors? How do you make sure they get value from this rather than it being just another online meeting? We are seeing online fatigue starting to kick in.

Great question. I think the way we are going to differentiate is to provide an outstanding experience. Crowd source your best speakers, your researchers, your senior leaders – the people who can provide the most value to these donors. Give them access to the president to create an insider experience that everyone is craving. Share stories about your institution and the amazing work you’ve been doing through this crisis. Show pride in your organization.

Q. [With] one-on-one meetings … there is much more ability to interact rather than one-way communication/presentations. So, I’m really curious about group-style virtual events?

One challenge with virtual events, even small group ones, is to get interaction and dialogue going with participants. We are trying to deal with this by making sure in advance that one or two donors on the call would share their own experiences. Not only is asking a donor to share and offer their perspective a powerful way to deepen connection with them, it encourages others to speak. We’ve seen this work well and found that all the participants on the call appreciated hearing about experiences outside of their daily worlds.

Q. I’m wondering how you are balancing the tone of content across university vs. hospital donors, especially when activity on our hospitals is increasing, but activity at our university is on hold? 

I believe that our relationship with hospitals is different than yours because our hospital partners are separately incorporated with their own boards and foundations. At this time, as at all times, we work very hard to collaborate as much as possible with them. We were able to secure a significant gift to support COVID-19 research and response that is having an impact at both U of T and our partner hospitals, which has given positive energy to our work together.

Q. Are you encouraging gift officers to reach out via physical mail? Often at a big university, a home address is the only contact info we have on file. Can this type of one-way stewardship be effective at this time?

I think it’s great to think about doing it that way. Until recently, we had suspended our mail operations, focused on using email, telephone and platforms like Zoom and MS Teams. We’re starting to revive our direct mail program, but we’re not encouraging individual gift officers to use direct mail, mainly because we’re finding that the digital tools are working well. Even so, I think there’s potential for it to be very effective because it is such a lovely, personal touch at a time when people are especially appreciative of such thoughtfulness.

Q. Any tips for contacting low-level, loyal, consistent donors who haven’t yet had a personal relationship with a gift officer?

Reaching out with a friendly thank you call or email can be a great way to make contact. You can offer to provide an update on what’s happening at your organization and connect them to any online content your are offering. Keep it light and maybe offer to follow up in a couple of weeks with an update. That way you can see if they’re willing to engage. We’ve seen that a lot of donors have been very responsive to this type of outreach – more so than in more normal times.

Q. You had mentioned bringing stewardship into the closing of a gift. Could you elaborate with a few examples on how this has been executed at the University of Toronto?

We will do this in instances of a building campaign, for example. We might depict what the signage will look like and share that with donors who are naming a building. Another way is to expose them somehow to the impact of their gift. We had a donor make a $10-million gift during this period, and we shared the specific projects we’re going to engage in with their gift in order to make it more tangible to them.

Q. For the coming year, we plan to ask our donors whose endowments are “underwater” to fund the amount of the annual award via an expendable gift this year. Our donor relations team has seriously struggled with how to best steward this very important segment. Assuming we can get past our data barriers (we’re not even sure there’s a way to track those who donate in this way for us), what suggestions do you have outside of the already popular ideas? We can’t connect them with their student for months. We’ve thought about a generic communication highlighting ONE story and showing the TYPE of impact, etc.

Ask the students to send notes of thanks, which can be done electronically. You can also reverse this and ask the donor to send notes of encouragement to students. Let them know how much the students would appreciate their outreach. By asking for their help, you are showing they are valued and bringing them into the circle.

Also, you could conduct a webinar where donors are connected with the dean of students or someone who is communicating with the students. You can share what programming you’re conducting to support students above and beyond what you normally do. This will help instill confidence in the institution’s efforts.

Related reading

Philanthropic stewardship during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond webinar

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