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Campaign caught COVID-19? Adapting to the 'new normal'

Only eight months into the leadership gifts phase of its campaign, Hood College had surpassed more than 50 percent of its fundraising goal. On the morning of March 5, passionate trustees and administrators attended a GG+A solicitor training, eager to help sustain and increase fundraising momentum. “Put me in coach,” one of the campaign chairs said. “Let’s go raise this money!”

Then, Hood’s campaign caught COVID-19.

Since fall of 2017, I have had the pleasure of counseling Hood in planning and orchestrating the largest comprehensive fundraising campaign in its more than 125-year history. As the entire world grappled with the effects of COVID-19, my colleagues–and now friends–at Hood were at the forefront of my mind. Given that this is the College’s first campaign in 25 years, I couldn’t bear to see it vanquished by a global pandemic.

Founded in 1893 and located in historic Frederick, Maryland, Hood is a small, coed, liberal arts college with approximately 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Andrea Chapdelaine became Hood’s President in 2015 and is a visionary, engaging academician and leader. After adopting Hood’s “Moving Together Beyond Boundaries” strategic plan in 2017, President Chapdelaine and the board of trustees embarked on campaign planning. Hood’s comprehensive campaign launched in 2019 to support student financial aid, curricular programs, facilities improvements, faculty development, and ambitious growth in the Hood Fund, the College’s annual giving program.

Under the assiduous and thoughtful leadership of Hood alumna Nancy Gillece, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, the College was making terrific fundraising progress when the pandemic broke. Since March, Hood has pressed forward and now stands at more than 80 percent of its campaign goal.

In light of the College’s success, I invited Nancy to talk with me and reflect on how she, her advancement colleagues, President Chapdelaine, and Hood’s trustees have met this milestone under the very difficult circumstances presented by the novel coronavirus.

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, GG+A Senior Vice President: Nancy, what has been the biggest challenge in keeping your campaign on track since March?

Nancy Gillece, Hood College Vice President for Institutional Advancement: When the nation began to shut down from the virus, and colleges and universities were moving to a virtual environment, President Chapdelaine and I were in Florida visiting with alumni and sharing our enthusiasm for the campaign. Suddenly, the world changed. We returned to campus and, as a community, focused on the next steps for the College. At that moment, the campaign hardly seemed to be our highest priority, but we looked for ways to maintain a high level of enthusiasm. We were making great strides, and we were determined to continue engaging our friends and alumni and sharing with them what we are doing at Hood.

EKF: How have you shifted campaign fundraising plans and expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic?

NG: Our campaign leadership team continued to meet monthly and still does. Comprised of several trustees, the team recommended last spring that we focus on unrestricted giving for the Hood Fund, which is included in our campaign goals, for the remainder of the 2019-2020 fiscal year. We felt this showed sensitivity to the uncertainty around us, while also providing a focused message to our constituents. It proved to be quite successful and provided an opportunity to talk with many donors about Hood before we make the campaign “ask.”

EKF: How has your work with prospective donors and donors changed during the past eight months?

NG: We quickly learned that donors were eager for conversation. We’ve spent a great deal of time calling our prospects and sharing with them what’s going on at Hood. Of course, our Reunion celebration was postponed, so we communicated regularly with members of the “reuning” classes. And without students on campus, we adjusted our spring phonathon to a staff effort. It was incredibly successful and gratifying. Our constituents were eager to hear about life at Hood and starved for conversation.

EKF: How have you, the president, the board, and your colleagues maintained focus on campaign fundraising?

NG: We’ve stayed positive and committed during this time of uncertainty. All of us reached out to our prospects. The members of the campaign leadership team personally called board members, and President Chapdelaine talked with her prospects.  We are blessed with a dynamic president who is eager and willing to do anything for the College and a campaign leadership team that is committed to fundraising success.

EKF: You’ve been in the advancement profession for nearly 20 years and have seen trends come and go. What do you anticipate will be the lasting changes to advancement work as a result of the ways that we have adapted in the past year?

NG: We have become much more efficient with time and methods of outreach. When I think about the time spent in planes, trains, and cars versus our current methods of effective communication, I am struck by the wasted hours. Phone calls and videoconference meetings have become the norm, and they seem to work. Nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting, but I think we will be a bit more judicious in the future about our planning and evaluating.  We recently connected scholarship donors with student recipients by videoconference or socially distanced in-person meetings, and several donors commented that they found this experience superior to a reception. We’ve learned that there are new ways of conducting business, and we can never go wrong when showing appreciation.

EKF: What lessons have you learned throughout the pandemic?

NG: We learned that regular communication is important. We learned the value of social media and the need for our constituents to connect with something positive. One of the most difficult decisions we made as an institution was to open for in-person classes in the fall. We expected this news to generate both positive and negative reactions. Fortunately, we are making it through the semester, and our data demonstrates the success of our planning.

EKF: The global pandemic has presented numerous challenges for your campaign fundraising and the College in general. However, have unexpected benefits or opportunities for fundraising also arisen during the pandemic?

NG: Our constituents have been incredibly generous and supportive. Our fall Hood Fund appeal featured the campus strategies implemented to maintain a safe and healthy living and learning environment and the associated costs. Parents, alumni, and friends have responded positively with appreciative comments and financial support. As a small institution, we have found that our community feels connected and takes pride in the College.

What has been most reassuring, however, is the success of the campaign. We have secured in gifts and commitments over 80 percent of our goal. Who could imagine this during a global pandemic? We certainly attribute a great deal of this success to our dedicated partners at GG+A.

EKF: Based on what you have learned over the past several months, what advice can you offer your advancement peers at other institutions about pursuing and achieving fundraising goals under difficult circumstances like these?

NG: There are always opportunities to turn those lemons into lemonade! The past eight months have been extraordinarily challenging and something we never expected. It is imperative to communicate honestly and openly with your constituents. We often try to project all of the positives, but in this case, we were forced to address the unknown challenges and the unforeseen costs associated with the pandemic. Folks responded and felt very good about being a part of the solution.

EKF: Do you have anything else to add?

NG: While I have known for years that the Hood community is strong, generous and supportive, the pandemic has demonstrated to me the unwavering commitment our constituents have for this institution. When I talk to a donor, whether an alumna from the 1950s or one from last year, they want to know about the College and how we are doing. They are offering to share their time, talent, and treasures with the current students, and they are sincerely concerned about their well-being.

This fall, we opened a new residence hall, which is the first new facility in 50 years! Clearly the opening was not what we planned, but our students and alumni embraced this campus addition with their usual enthusiasm. We are most grateful for our Hood family and eagerly anticipate future community celebrations. It can’t happen soon enough.

EKF: Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your thoughts with me. Although a global pandemic is, we hope, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, the lessons we can learn from Hood College and other institutions about maintaining fundraising progress in the face of inordinate challenges are valuable. Stay the course. Be positive and enthusiastic. Contact, inform, and assure your donors. And keep asking for support.

 

 

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting these institutions in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She possesses particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating high-performance major gift programs, preparing for and executing capital campaigns, sustaining and accelerating annual giving, coaching…