The (virtual) arc of engagement: Moving donor conversations forward

Early this spring, seemingly overnight, the time-tested habits of Advancement evaporated. In higher education, tried-and-true tactics to engage donors and connect their passions to institutional mission—an invitation to an alumni club event, a one-on-one meeting with over coffee, a class reunion celebration on campus, meetings with faculty leaders—were suddenly rendered impossible.

The tectonic shift in the practice of fundraising caused by COVID-19 has, in many cases, fostered swift innovation and silo-breaking teamwork. Webinars, virtual book clubs, and other digital programs that blur the lines between communications and engagement have flourished. As one of our clients recently told us, mandated social distancing “enabled us to do in two weeks what would have otherwise taken a year.”

Stewardship phone calls and webinars were appropriate, welcomed, and all for the good. But the urgent question for fundraisers now is: What comes next?

A landscape forever changed

Our collective optimism for a rapid return to the usual development events and in-person meetings has dimmed. In GG+A’s June 21 survey of Advancement professionals, just 20% of respondents said they envision in-person events returning this fall—down from 49% of survey respondents in the pandemic’s early days. And, many Advancement professionals say that even when “normal” returns, this period of remote programming will have forever changed donors’ expectations of how our institutions should interact with them.

To maintain and grow a vibrant base of philanthropic support—to thrive through change and challenge—we believe the surest path is this: Develop entire, strategic arcs of donor engagement that are virtual. The opportunity is to conceive the full donor cycle, from identification through stewardship, using strategies that incorporate and extend the successes of this spring’s “pilot” innovation phase.

Engagement arcs: Blueprints for the future

The idea is to create clear fundraising strategies using entirely remote communications and engagement opportunities. This is a shoulder-to-shoulder partnership between gift officers and communications staff to think together about the right digital tools and experiences to deepen relationships and advance gift discussions.

You might imagine developing a general plan for a specific giving opportunity, and then adapting it for individual donor needs. Start with the assumption that you’ll want consistent, monthly contact with the highest-potential donors in your portfolio. What are the relationship milestones you want to reach with each of them in six, nine, and 12 months?

Every donor’s interests are different, but we’ll use a single example to illustrate the principle. Your public university has determined the financial needs of students in FY21 are likely to be 10% higher than budgeted a year ago. Revenues and state support are decreasing, and significant levels of philanthropy are needed to ensure that talented students can enroll, persist, and graduate.

The arc of engagement might start next month with a series of student stories—told through videos and print and electronic publications—that highlight the impact of donor-funded scholarships and aid. Testimonials of alumni who received aid may be shared widely through social media. Those anecdotes might be followed with the development of a brief presidential white paper that outlines with transparency the emergent mission-driven need for private support for financial aid. Before it is released broadly, the white paper may be shared with small groups of key stakeholders for a facilitated discussion with the president over Zoom. Proposal templates and pitch decks for gifts of various sizes are created. Additional one-on-one or small-group discussions with university leaders are convened with principal-level donors.

Each of those tangible communications and engagement “products” is a donor touch point—to be used flexibly by gift officers as they tailor the right continuum of engagement for each person. They are complemented with other tactics, such as outreach from a volunteer to discuss why they support student scholarships.

Join our webinar to learn more

Whether tactics are in-person or virtual, donor engagement strategies ensure consistency in moving relationships and gift conversations forward. We see in this moment the opportunity—and the imperative—to fast-forward lasting innovative approaches for our field. To be sure, institutions across every nonprofit sector need philanthropic support at an ever-growing pace to fuel their mission-driven work.

We invite you to join us for a half-hour discussion on how to think about and create a (Virtual) Arc of Engagement on Wednesday, July 8, at 11 a.m. CDT. Click here to sign up.


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About the author

Pete Lasher

Senior Vice President

Pete Lasher, Senior Vice President and Higher Education Practice Leader, brings more than 30 years of successful fundraising experience, including leadership of five separate billion-dollar capital campaigns at private and public institutions in the US. As GG+A’s higher education practice senior leader, he currently advises universities in North America and…