COVID-19 as advancement's innovation opportunity

COVID-19 as Advancements innovation opportunity

With the end of an academic year unlike any other, colleges and universities are assessing the dramatic shifts they made in response to COVID-19 and applying the lessons learned to plan for the future. As they do, many are finding that the changes they made have utility far beyond the spring of 2021—and not just in terms of remote learning.

For example, advancement leaders are increasingly seeing COVID-19 not as a one-off occurrence that brought temporary changes in their approaches to philanthropy, alumni engagement, and advancement operations. Rather it is an accelerator of fundamental shifts that have been building for years.

Just look at what they have achieved over the last 16 months. Development officers are moving faster than ever before. They have found ways to build and maintain meaningful donor relationships at a distance. They have created innovative methods for fostering a sense of community amongst alumni and other supporters. Through it all, they have even begun to redefine how they measure success and the positive impact they make on their communities.

While the underlying conditions driving these rapid evolutions will eventually recede, each represents a trend that warrants attention as our new world begins to emerge. By embracing the significant changes borne of this unprecedented time, advancement professionals can build a template for the future that will pay dividends long after this pandemic subsides.

Greater speed and agility

Throughout the year, we have seen countless examples of advancement operations that acted quickly to secure critical support for students and institutions—and show that philanthropy’s place in higher education has perhaps never been as important as it is today. Given the financial uncertainties that many colleges and universities will continue to face, this level of agility needs to be embedded in our advancement DNA. Needs will arise quickly, and the windows for addressing them will grow shorter and shorter. As such, the ability to establish and execute overlapping micro-campaigns will be essential.

How can we serve our institutions and donors best in meaningful conversations about philanthropy? How quickly can we identify and communicate with those prospective donors for a campaign? How long will it take to mobilize volunteers and provide the resources they need to engage their networks? When can we evaluate performance metrics with transparency and make needed adjustments? In an era of unforeseen challenges and shrinking campaign cycles, the answer to all the above will need to be faster than ever before.

More personalization in donor engagement

In the absence of in-person events or on-campus gatherings, advancement professionals have had to get creative in how they foster the sense of community that honors the relationship their alumni have with the institution and builds a culture of giving. At the same time, this era of social distancing has greatly diminished the ability to have sincere and personal interactions with prospective major donors. In response, forward-thinking development officers have found ways to individualize their outreach and demonstrate sincerity and value to their constituents. This is a trend that can only strengthen advancement efforts in the future.

To be clear, the need to invest time and care in learning about a donor’s relationship with the institution has not changed. Motivations for giving still need to be discussed and understood. What is changing, however, is the speed and scale at which we need to get to that place of understanding. As a result, the strategies and process by which we cultivate and nurture these relationships are undergoing a major shift that leverages technology in new ways.

In order to personalize as many interactions as possible, we need fast and easy access to specific donor interest data. In order to generate and disseminate those personalized messages, we need systems capable of supporting communications that are both high-touch, and high-volume. Personalization at a distance can indeed be done—but only if we are armed with the insights and tools we need.

New definitions of campaign success

For much of its existence, success in higher education advancement has been defined by one metric: dollars secured. That made a lot of sense when campaigns would run for five to seven years to reach goals that totaled in the hundreds of millions (and even billions) of dollars. But as micro-campaigns become more prevalent, and as competition for philanthropic dollars intensifies in the post-COVID world, success cannot be judged by the totals alone.

Along with their gifts, donors bring knowledge and well-informed perspectives about how their philanthropic investments can make a meaningful difference in the world—and increasingly, they are prioritizing impact during a time when meeting immediate human needs is so prominent.

Throughout the last year, we have seen that the most compelling messages have not been “we are seeking to raise X amount of dollars;” but rather “we are seeking to support students through this pandemic.” Moving forward, this approach can be extended to communications centered on supporting faculty in new ways, building a new home for groundbreaking research, or any number of specific initiatives that strengthen the campus community. In order to stand out in an increasingly crowded philanthropic market, it is time to define success not in terms of dollars; but what dollars are used to accomplish.

Our opportunity for innovation

The silver lining in any crisis is that it often shines light on areas where we may have strayed too far from our core values or purpose in the past—and thus enhances our ability to grow stronger and more resilient in the future. It is an old adage, but one that nonetheless captures and crystalizes the challenge ahead for advancement professionals who will be relied upon and empowered like never before in the coming years.

The changes made in response to COVID-19 thus far have resulted in an advancement industry that is more agile, more adaptive, and more donor-centric. The more these trends continue, the better positioned institutions and their donors will be to emerge from this period even stronger than they were before.

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