It’s time to start planning for the post-COVID campaign

If all goes according to plan, the United States will soon have enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for every adult in the country. That means that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the COVID-19 pandemic will recede into the background. Yet, as the United States finds its “new normal,” the “new” campaign landscape that nonprofit institutions will be navigating will be one that’s been fundamentally altered by the adaptions that every organization has had to make over the past year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed nearly every aspect of campaign fundraising—from gatherings of leadership donors and prospective donors to communications messaging to events. Some of the innovative solutions to recent challenges have been fruitful, while other elements have been more difficult. How organizations integrate the best of the COVID-19 adaptations/innovations into their previously “tried and true” techniques could help determine how successfully they’re able to raise funds in the future.

A shift in emphasis

It is easy for institutions to get caught up in the internal numbers game. Yet, that approach has limited utility outside the organization. An institution’s internal goal may be of interest but it’s unlikely to motivate “stretch” gifts. Donors have long been far more focused on philanthropic impact than a specific number goal and the pandemic has strengthened that mentality. That makes sense: Stories are far more impactful than hard-edged number goals. Numbers on their own don’t offer context. What matters is the objective behind those numbers. The pandemic has forced institutions to be more thoughtful about how they tell stories that explain what they’re seeking to accomplish.

Campaigns must offer a framework from which institutions can demonstrate how their mission reflects the reality and needs of the post-pandemic world. That means answering the question: Why should a donor give to your organization rather than another cause? That requires some organizations to rethink their case for support to ensure they’re focused squarely on a forward-looking vision, future possibilities, and quality of life.

It’s important to note that not every institution needs a vision that is world-changing, but every institution does need a vision that addresses why it matters. That requires us to sort through the broader purpose we serve and identify how a campaign will help our institution reach those objectives. After all, at some point—hopefully soon—we’ll be able to focus again on quality of life.

Depending on the sector, the societal implications differ. For instance, a medical research facility will have a very different focus than an orchestra. One isn’t more or less important, but they make different arguments for why they should be the recipient of a donor’s gift.

Ultimately, the question behind the case for support may be as simple as: What do you want to live for or what do you value? For a cultural institution, the answer may be “To live for joy of live musical presentation” while a medical center may be “To see cancer cured.” Every organization needs to demonstrate the worthiness of its vision and its ongoing viability.

The return of (some) person-to-person interactions

Campaigns have always been a person-to-person endeavor. While they may return to something that resembles 2019—future relationships and interactions will undoubtedly be shaped by the pandemic.

Take gatherings of leadership donors and prospective donors, which we’ve long relied on as cultivation opportunities and to gather insights into campaign issues. While it is likely that some institutions will return to in-person gatherings, many more will likely also offer a virtual gathering to accommodate those who cannot, or prefer not to, attend an in-person gathering. One lesson that we’ve learned over the past year is that it is entirely possible to have effective interpersonal interaction via video. Scores have made gift commitments, been hired for a new job, and had many meaningful interactions via video.

However, there are some downsides to virtual gatherings. For one, it’s often difficult to build chemistry on a video conferencing tool such as Zoom. It’s also difficult to evoke a sense of place when a donor or prospect isn’t there in person.

Given the new challenges involved with being physically present, it seems clear that institutions will have to adapt to a reality in which some leadership briefings and some visits take place in person, while others are done remotely. That two-pronged approach means that gift officers will need to be more flexible and fluid about how they think about developing relationships with prospective donors. It will also mean that institutions will have to rethink gift officers’ metrics. Throughout the pandemic, many shifted from visits to interactions, and institutions will now have to consider what metrics make sense once in-person visits are possible once again. Whatever metric an institution chooses needs to reflect the reality; gift officers need the flexibility and ability to adapt to the preferences of prospective donors. Some donors will prefer to meet in person, others virtually, and others may decide which they prefer on a case-by-case basis. Institutions will have to consider how that is reflected in how they measure a gift officer’s activity.

At the same time, gift officers will have to hone multiple new skills at once. With different donors preferring different engagement models, they will have to be as comfortable interacting in-person as they are on a screen and vice versa.

They may also need to adjust their strategy. One of my clients told me that while he used to build a trip around an anchor appointment, he now is equally amenable to building a trip around a cluster of discovery visits and then search for the “anchor” appointment.

A different approach to events

Prior to the pandemic, many institutions were questioning the value of their events from a net revenue perspective; the pandemic has intensified the debate regarding what role events should play in fundraising.

With in-person visits an impossibility, many institutions developed new ways to bring people together with a shared interest—from hosting high-profile virtual galas that aim to capture a similar feel of an in-person event to more low-key virtual events. That experience should help us build new event models that benefit from additional, expanded modes of sharing vision and excitement once in-person events become possible.

Over the past year, the virtual events that have worked have typically fallen into two buckets:

  • Events modified for a virtual format in which the institution sends a care package in advance. For example, every participant might receive a bottle of wine, crackers, and collateral materials to make the online experience more collective.
  • Institutions sharing new content. Whether that’s a video presentation that pairs a performance with an exploration of what’s in the musicians’ cases or a lecture from a curator.

Virtual events give institutions ways to reach a broader base. For example, one higher education client of mine has rolled out a series of “insider” events that spotlight what is happening on campus and to the institution. They have been hugely successful because they enabled the college to reach a significantly broader swath of prospects and donors.

Given the benefits of virtual events, institutions will need to evaluate their effort to determine whether a program makes sense to take place virtually—enabling donors and prospects of all ages and locations to participate—and/or in-person—creating a shared experience and sense of community. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as institutions have to consider their objectives.

Campaigns provide institutions a tool they can use to build their vision, whip up the faithful and raise funds. That was true before the pandemic and remains true today.

As we look ahead, it seems likely that campaigns themselves will increasingly serve as a vehicle for change.


If you would like assistance developing a strategy for your next campaign, contact Eric at esnoek@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Eric Snoek

Senior Vice President

Eric Snoek, Senior Vice President, brings to the firm more than 30 years of development and advancement experience within higher education and independent educational institutions. He has extensive experience in individual giving, advancement planning and management, capital campaigns and campaign planning, training development staff and board members, engagement programs, stewardship…