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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 Rod Kirsch, GG+A Senior Vice President, who was Vice President at Penn State University throughout its shocking abuse scandal.

That crisis kept Penn State in the national and international focus for months. Yet, despite that challenging environment, Kirsch navigated his team through the difficult waters. 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, Kirsch discussed his experience, including how his team communicated with donors, how it collaborated with its communications teams and governing boards, and how it 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 Kirsch.

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

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. 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 calls?

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 and many of them also wanted to share advice.

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?

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

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

The campaign we were working on was titled “For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students.” It 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 highly successful. When the crisis hit, I told my team at our first gathering that I 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?

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 Rod at rkirsch@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Rodney P. Kirsch

Senior Vice President

Rod Kirsch, Senior Vice President, brings a wealth of experience in alumni relations and higher education fundraising to the firm. Over his 34-year career in university advancement, he has provided executive leadership in raising more than $5 billion of philanthropy. Rod is currently Senior Vice President Emeritus for Development and…