In the course of a few days in March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced advancement shops to rapidly transform their work. Events were cancelled, as were in-person visits.
As advancement offices shifted to remote work, advancement shops had little choice but to develop creative solutions to their challenges. In relatively short order, gift officers began meeting with prospects and donors virtually—via video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Teams—and virtual events were introduced. Not surprisingly, some efforts were more successful than others.
But there were a number of bright spots. As GG+A Senior Consulting Vice President Kathleen Kavanagh’s article “3 silver linings for advancement programs in the COVID-19 world” noted, the pandemic drove “many organizations have developed creative solutions to their traditional ways of operating. Applying a fresh set of eyes to their programs, advancement teams [found] that some new strategies and techniques provide different opportunities to engage constituents and to focus on the important work of securing philanthropic gifts for their organizations.”
Now, with the rollout of vaccines that will enable much of the country to return to some semblance of normalcy in the not-too-distant future, advancement shops can take a step back to assess which elements will remain viable tools and which will fade away. To help us examine which elements will continue to be effective well into the future, we spoke with Dan Lowman, Senior Vice President, SurveyLab, who has a unique perspective given that he has been tracking how fundraisers have gone about their work since the pandemic began with a regular tracking survey. (Click here to access the latest tracking survey.)
GG+A: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted fundraising overall? What can we learn from those results?
DL: The pandemic deeply impacted the philanthropic world, with arts and cultural institutions hit the hardest given that most of their revenue is earned revenue from ticket sales. They’ve been closed much of the year and that’s also impacted their charitable giving, which has created a difficult situation.
It’s been a different story among health care and higher education institutions, which fell into two camps: those that stopped fundraising and those that plowed ahead using tools such as mail and video conferencing. Those that didn’t continue to fundraise saw a significant drop in fundraising levels and are now facing difficult decisions such as budget cuts and furloughs, while those that continued to fundraise aren’t suffering as much as others because they spent time figuring out what tactics work in a remote environment.
GG+A: What tactics have institutions found that work well in a remote environment?
DL: The data shows that visits and solicitations conducted over video conferencing tools work. I suspect that’s because throughout the pandemic most people, including donors, have gotten used to video conferencing after having used Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and other video conferencing tools for work, in addition to virtual happy hours, and visiting with friends and family. As a result, video conferencing no longer feels awkward and gift officers now find themselves able to have good, productive conversations, which is evident in our data that shows the use of video conferencing use has risen and remains relatively high.
Video conferencing is remarkably efficient, which is why I expect it to remain a valuable tool for gift officers. If a gift officer in Chicago and one of his donors is in Montana, maybe the institution—and the donor—would prefer to conduct the meeting over Zoom. That approach saves time and money for the institution and is often more convenient for the donor. That’s why I suspect that we’ll see a great willingness among donors to continue to visit with gift officers over video conferencing tools.
That being said, I don’t think all visits will continue to be virtual. Fundraising always has been a relationship effort and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. As the pandemic fades away, we’ll likely see gift officers adopt a mix of video conferencing visits with face-to-face interactions.
GG+A: Few areas of fundraising have seen a bigger disruption than events. Will events bounce back once vaccines are widely distributed?
DL: A friend of mine who works for a large nonprofit recently invited me to watch the nonprofit’s annual gala, which had pivoted to a virtual event. It was all done remotely but was very slickly produced and effectively conveyed the organization’s mission—namely why its mission is as important as ever. In total, the event was 45 minutes and attendees could watch from home. And the organization still used the gala to raise money; it charged $10,000 for a virtual table and, because it was virtual, it didn’t have any limits on how many tables it could sell.
I suspect that type of event will continue well after the pandemic is over because it makes more sense; normal galas are very expensive to put together. They’re big productions that require coordinating a number of elements including space, food, tables, decorations, and lighting, and they often only a net small portion of the cost to put on the event. That’s why it has long been a position of the firm to not spend time on them. If they shift online and benefit organizations in a more significant way than before, that makes sense.
GG+A: How else have donors’ familiarity with, and comfort with, virtual events changed the way advancement shops operate?
DL: A number of institutions have developed innovative solutions that will likely continue well into the future.
For example, Montgomery College, a three-campus community college, celebrate a donor’s gift by creating a video that served as a virtual building dedication. The video explained why the building was important to the institution as it took viewers on a virtual visit with students, faculty, and staff who will use the facility. Following the video’s release, it held a live virtual party. That type of event can serve as a template for institutions to steward donors who are not local, unable to travel or have some other challenges.
Similarly, Kutztown University developed a completely virtual homecoming experience that featured an array of activities including cooking classes, live music, and a virtual event that enabled alumni and students to use customized avatars to interact in an immersive virtual experience called Degy World that enabled them to see live DJs, take boat rides, and watch fireworks. The events removed a number of barriers that often keep alumni—and young alumni in particular—from participating in homecoming. Most notably, the events were free and they didn’t require a significant time investment. That meant that an alum located across the country could pop 15 or 20 minutes rather than hopping on a plane to travel back to campus.
GG+A: How has the pandemic altered how advancement offices operate? Will that change the dynamics within those offices?
DL: There’s no doubt that many institutions have managed to get by with their staffs working remotely. However, my colleagues and I have observed that in offices in which everyone works remotely, don’t have staff interacting in the same ways that they do when they’re in the same physical space. That type of informal relationship building that develops before meetings, in the breakroom, or in the elevator, doesn’t occur in a remote environment and that’s hurt some organizations’ espirit de corps.
That’s even true among organizations that have adopted a hybrid model in which some staff are in the office for the portion of the week. That’s caused a breakdown in team spirit and hindered some core functions, such as gift processing, that work better in an office setting.
The question is whether the benefits of remote work outweigh the downsides. I think the answer is that it depends. I suspect that gift officers—and some other staff—may be asked to work from home to free up space and offer some cost savings and some desired flexibility for some people.
If you want to know what your constituents are thinking, SurveyLab can help provide answers. Understanding your donor population, at all levels, will allow your institution to make informed choices for the future. Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about SurveyLab.