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Nearly every campaign will encounter unforeseen challenges. Here’s how to tackle them.

Campaigns are longer than ever. The median capital campaign spans about eight years, which is a long enough period of time that is nearly inevitable that institutions will encounter some type of crisis over the course of their capital campaign. Navigating those crises can be difficult because they have the potential to significantly hinder their ability to fundraise.

Even so, it is far from inevitable that a crisis will derail a capital campaign. Advancement teams that are transparent and responsive with donors can weather a storm and, in some cases, the experience may even deepen their connections with donors.

Few advancement leaders have a firmer grip on these lessons than Tom Hiles, GG+A Vice President who was Vice Chancellor at University of Missouri when—three weeks after the high-profile kickoff of the university’s $1.4 billion campaign—both the president and the chancellor were forced out in the wake of a series of roiling issues, and Rod Kirsch, GG+A Vice President who was Vice President at Penn State University throughout the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

Those crises kept Mizzou and Penn State in the national and international focus for months. Yet, despite that challenging environment, Hiles and Kirsch navigated their teams through the difficult waters. Hiles’ team surpassed the $1.4 billion goal for its “Mizzou: Our Time to Lead” campaign in September 2020, while Kirsch’s team soared past its $2 billion goal “For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students” in April 2014.

In a recent GG+A webinar, Hiles and Kirsch discussed their experiences, including how they communicated with donors, how they collaborated with their communications teams and governing boards, and how they leveraged data to better understand their constituents. To understand the tactics and strategies that enable an institution to withstand an unforeseen challenge—or even a full-blown crisis—we spoke with Hiles and Kirsch.

GG+A: Let’s set the stage by describing the initial steps you took to address your situations.

TH: We initially faced a communications issue. We were inundated with donors’ questions and concerns, as well as donors threatening to pull their contributions and long-term pledges, and we had to determine how to respond. We also had to determine how to get information out about dynamics on campus that were changing every few hours.

We developed a rapid response approach where we triaged information. When we designated information “red” we knew we had to get it out in an hour. When we designated it “yellow” we knew it had to get out within 24 to 48 hours. “Green” information could get out when we could get to it. At the same time, we had to designate who on our team would respond for individual donor outreach.

We also developed communications messages for our top 25 prospects that cascaded out into the colleges and athletics. We determined that for the first few weeks after national coverage we had to do regular outreach. We’d tell them that we would host a call at a certain time to update them on the latest information. That outreach taught us the importance of getting as much information out as we could.

RK: Everyone at Penn State was shell-shocked both inside and outside the institution—including the board of trustees. When a situation like this unravels live, on national TV, you are along for the ride at the moment and there isn’t much you can do.

At first, we in Advancement were told to avoid any external communication, which, of course, was a mistake. During the early hours, I got my senior team together to talk about what was going on and how we would handle our initial interactions. It wasn’t until four days in that we started to get communications out. Board leadership eventually did allow our campaign chair to communicate with major donors. That was useful because we weren’t providing any institutional response to our key stakeholders. We used our campaign chair to communicate the message that we were all sharing in the trauma and that we continued to have a strong team in place at the university. Essentially our position to donors was simple: “Penn State needs you now more than ever.” In other words, we were urging them not to abandon the ship.

Eight days after the news broke, I was able to gather the entire advancement team for the first time. I told our gift officers, “In the next two days I want to you to call at least 10 of the most important people in your portfolio. I know that we don’t have answers, but we can reach out and listen to them.” People want to be heard when they are angry and it’s important to reach out, even if you don’t have all the answers.

GG+A: What was the response to those actions?

TH: We were surprised how many wanted to be on our conference call. We sent out notice of our initial call to our alumni cabinet, alumni association board, and Jefferson Club board [ed: the Jefferson Club is a giving society made up of donors who have at least $25,000 in lifetime contributions to Mizzou] and more than 90% of people we reached out to called in. People really wanted that information and they also needed and wanted a place to vent.

RK: We found that appointments were easy to get. We made more face-to-face contacts that year than any year in our history because people wanted to vent, but they also wanted to share advice.

TH: We had a similar experience. One prominent CEO who I spent six months trying to track down called my cell phone from China 10 minutes after I reached out following our president and chancellor’s resignations.

GG+A: In the midst of crisis it can seem like you’re constantly facing a firehouse of challenges. How did you triage the issues?

TH: We started by making sure we knew who would handle each role. For example, we determined who would monitor our emails and who was in charge of phone and email responses, as well as who would deal with the letters and emails coming into the chancellor’s office. We determined who would handle rapid response, as well as monitored those staff members to ensure they didn’t get burnt out from the role.

RK: We were thrust into doing things that weren’t any part of our job descriptions because there was no one else to do the work. For example, I was in a senior-level meeting where we were discussing the idea of setting up a victims’ fund. Because it involved money, and perhaps donations, investigating the mechanics of a victim’s fund got delegated to me.

We also had to sort through legal concerns, financial stability issues, and reputational considerations. In my world where we had pledge cancellations happen or threatened, I quickly worked with a law firm to develop language that clearly stated no philanthropic support would pay for our legal costs.

GG+A: What concerns did donors have and how did you reassure them?

TH: Their main concern was that the inmates were running the asylum. They were concerned we didn’t have control and that we let this situation happen. That was insulting to our students, but it was a concern that some donors had. The way I addressed it was by saying, “If you run a business you might not agree with everything your customers say, but you will certainly listen to them.” Our customers—our students—did outreach to communicate their concerns and we didn’t endorse everything they said, but we did believe it was important to listen to them and to understood their concerns.

RK: We had popular president who was dismissed, then the icon of the university, Joe Paterno, was fired live on national TV. One of donors’ immediate concerns was one of due process. They asked why we didn’t suspend these gentlemen or put them on leave, or whether they were really culpable.

GG+A: Tom, during the webinar you mentioned that you brought in Rod to help you navigate Mizzou’s crises? How and why did you decide to bring in outside assistance?

TH: Our interim chancellor had worked at Penn State and had had conversations about how to address the situation. Some of our deans and volunteers were urging us to shut our campaign down. I knew that wasn’t the right answer, but I needed perspective. Because he had navigated his own crisis, Rod offered a rich perspective that was helpful with staff, deans, and key volunteers. He helped calm the waters.

GG+A: Rod, you mentioned that no one from your team left Penn State during the crisis, despite the significant challenge they were facing at work. How did you maintain a strong staff morale?

RK: We had a team with a great sense of loyalty to institution. The Penn State they knew and loved wasn’t defined by Jerry Sandusky. There was a real commitment to mission. In a variety of ways, I tried to be very supportive of them and empathetic with what they were going through.

The campaign we were working on was titled “For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students,” which was focused on how every philanthropic gift could help students. That sharp focus helped everyone understand the vision. Prior to the crisis the campaign had been very successful. When the crisis hit, I told my team at our first gathering that I am wasn’t going anywhere and that I needed them to stay, too. I hadn’t planned to say that; it was spontaneous and from the heart.  I only learned later that my commitment to see the crisis through meant a lot to people.

GG+A: It is obviously difficult to prepare for the unknown, but are there any preemptive steps that an institution can put in place that can make it easier to deal with crises when they occur?

TH: Many universities have a crisis communications plan, but it often sits on a shelf and no one has read it. Three to four times a year we’d practice emergencies like tornado and after our crisis I realized that we should have done the same type of preparations for a communications crisis.

RK: Crisis simulations are helpful. After our situation we did develop some simulations within our area of advancement to have protocols of who handles what in different circumstances. It’s important to map out a strategy and revisit it every so often to ensure that it can be useful when you need it.

If you need assistance planning for, or navigating, an unforeseen situation at your institution, feel free to contact Tom at thiles@grenzglier.com or Rod at rkirsch@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Zak Stambor

Marketing Writer/Editor

Zak Stambor, Marketing Writer/Editor, works with Grenzebach Glier and Associates’ consultants and other staff to craft thought leadership articles and other marketing pieces across a variety of formats and channels. Prior to joining GG+A in February 2020, Zak spent 16 years as an award-winning journalist. Most recently, he was editor…