Open Menu Close Menu


How Fundraising Can Step Up to the COVID-19 Challenge

College and university advancement teams are evolving their strategies to help their institutions persist through uncertain times. Here are five examples to learn from.


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to nearly every aspect of higher education, and advancement and alumni engagement are no exception. Not only are these mission-critical teams managing the shift to remote operations, digital communications and virtual events; they are doing so at a time when their work is more important than ever — to students with urgent financial needs, and institutions confronting an uncertain fiscal landscape moving forward.

In response, forward-thinking advancement leaders are evolving their strategies to rise to the challenges of this unprecedented era. They are targeting their focus on philanthropy that directly supports student well-being. They are forging more meaningful connections by listening to the concerns of alumni, donors and partners. And they are engaging in meaningful dialogue with supporters whose vast knowledge of industry, the arts and sciences, and government can support and amplify their institutions' efforts during this time.

The examples below are just a sample of the great work taking place across the higher education advancement sector — and they provide tangible strategies and tactics that teams can employ to lead through this uncharted territory.

1) Putting Students at the Center

Advancement teams can lead change and encourage giving by making students their call to action. For example, Emory University launched the "EmoryTogether" campaign, a $5 million fund to support students dealing with COVID-19-related disruption. EmoryTogether reinforces the institution's commitment to its students and their families by providing necessary support to continue their educational pursuits. Moreover, this initiative instills confidence in the incoming freshman class that its decision to join the Emory community is the right move, even in these uncertain times.

Emory's advancement team immediately focused its robust talent and expertise to build what is now one of the largest funds intentionally solicited and directed to address student challenges. Its bold leadership, agility and fortitude underscore the powerful role advancement will play in the collective success of institutions, students and the community as we navigate through these times.

2) Rallying Support Around Specific Issues of Urgent Need

Advancement teams are uniquely positioned to serve as a catalyst for action by creating strong partnerships aimed at driving a specific solution. For instance, Texas Tech University's "Red Raider Response" campaign, launched to support the safe return of students studying abroad, has raised more than $130K from 500-plus donors, as well as an additional $300K to support 200 nursing students in Abilene. This campaign aligns with the grit at the heart of the institution's core values — values Texas Tech alumni and donors share — and demonstrates the powerful impact of philanthropy.

Texas Tech has more than 100 students studying abroad, many in countries affected by COVID-19. With the Red Raider Response, the institution will be able to help their students begin the re-entry process and make their way back home. Not only have the institution's actions inspired incredible generosity, they've reminded us all that a clearly stated, specific goal goes a long way in mobilizing support.

3) Being Flexible

Successful advancement teams listen to their constituents — and act on what they learn. In so doing, they empower donors to create the meaningful change they want to see in their communities, in countless lives and throughout the world. Gonzaga University has demonstrated this point with remarkable flexibility and a strong commitment to donor-centered fundraising — most notably by shifting its annual Give Day to encourage donations for COVID-19 related activities.

The "Zags for Zags" campaign enables donors to choose how they want to support the institution and in which manner, while still encouraging a focus on funds for student support. Donors can support Gonzaga's student safety net to relieve the immediate needs of students experiencing hardships, provide funding for emergency assistance to community members who need access to necessities, or a number of other urgent needs. As such, giving at Gonzaga is not only supporting student success through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is empowering donors to assist in the way they feel will be most impactful.

4) Combating the Pandemic Together

Institutions with healthcare organizations are actively fighting COVID-19, and advancement leaders are inviting donors to help lead the effort alongside doctors and researchers. The University of Virginia Health System is engaged in critical research to identify and develop COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. In a YouTube message to students and alumni, UVA's president highlighted this crucial work and the profound positive impact it can have not only for Virginia residents, but communities around the world.

UVA development officers are serving as the army of ambassadors for this message, boldly addressing the university's work in conversations and digital communications with donors. Proactively highlighting the university's commitment to life-saving work not only supports fundraising for immediate needs, but also helps raise awareness around other giving opportunities, such as the Student Life and Leadership Fund, which is assisting students with financial needs.

5) Practicing Agile Operations

While most advancement teams have quickly made the shift to remote work to seamlessly continue their operations, some have done so with incredible speed and effectiveness. The Oregon State University Foundation is a prime example — having established fully virtual operations in just a matter of hours after the order for remote work came down.

Such fast action enabled it to establish the Beavers Care Fund and assist students with COVID-19-related needs in near real time. Having its operations set up allowed staff members to maintain productivity when the government's orders for remote work was issued. Further, instead of navigating through system access and administrative issues, the advancement team was able to immediately direct efforts to address the needs of their community.

Helping Institutions Emerge Stronger Than Before

These and many other extraordinary advancement teams around the world are keeping donors and students at the center, even while adapting to past-paced changes that no one could have foreseen. They are continuing to fulfill their mission of growing a strong culture of philanthropy at their institutions; cultivating and stewarding relationships with individual donors, alumni communities and corporate partners; and keeping constituents informed and engaged.

This commitment will ensure that students and institutions continue to get the support they need. More important, it is demonstrating the power of philanthropy and providing a template for success that will long outlive the disruption of this pandemic.

comments powered by Disqus