With a sustained flattened curve, and the easing of restrictions across much of the country, there is much talk about returning to a form of normalcy. That concept, however, is easier to say than to explain, because it is very clear that what we all used to take for granted and treat as our normal working and social lives has disappeared – at least for now. Instead, we have a new ‘Covid normal’, with some restrictions and guidelines being kept in place for the forseeable future. This means that within our institutions and, indeed, within our offices, we have to start thinking, planning and acting in new ways. We cannot simply step back six months and restart our programs as we had planned at the end of last year. We still have six months of this year to go, and they will have challenges of their own as our situation changes across the country both socially and economically. Here are some suggestions for your next steps that we have put together from our own experience and from colleagues around the world.
A moment to recap and reflect
Over the last three months we have provided a series of updates and suggestions around the various operational advancement areas, as well as some guiding principles for working during the crisis period. This might be an opportunity to return to those updates and run a quick desk audit of what you have (or have not) done. Briefly, we hope you have:
- Planned and executed a careful communications strategy across all your various constituencies
- Collected stories from those constituencies and used them to keep in touch with your community
- Reviewed and refreshed your annual plan for fundraising and alumni relations
- Managed upwards to ensure that your institutional leaders know what you are doing and how well you are doing it
- Had a good look at your internal housekeeping and tidied up all those tasks and files which you have been putting aside until you had time
- Increased your phone and video contact with your major donors and with the older members of your community
- Been diligent with your various stewardship activities
- Been active in your bequest program, or even planned to begin a program if you don’t already have one
- Adapted your fundraising programs to meet the current concerns and needs of both your institution and your supporters.
Congratulations if you have managed to do all this, and still have looked after yourself and your team while largely working from home.
Activities and attitudes have changed, and will remain different for quite some time. There will be no return to mass indoor events this year, we are pretty certain of that. Older people are much more cautious at the moment about going out and mixing with people who may be asymptomatic carriers. Not every donor will feel comfortable about face-to-face meetings and solicitations. Against that background, we have a slow lifting of restrictions, but constantly changing conditions, guidelines and rules.
So the first principle for everyone in advancement is Be Adaptable.
You need to listen carefully to your institution and community and hear what they are saying. Being tone-deaf does not bring comfort and a sense of assurance to a community which will largely feel battered, and in some cases will be lacking in confidence. Phone calls, emails and quick and simple on-line surveys can help you test ideas, gain insights and gather data to inform your decisions.
The second principle, therefore, is Be Responsive.
Don’t jump to conclusions and make assumptions. Your community and constituencies will tell you what they would like from your institution and your office, what they feel comfortable with, and the pace at which they would like to move forward. This will be different for various constituencies and so look to provide different support and approaches for the different segments of your community.
Within your office, whether large or small, take stock and work through how you can still do your jobs – but do them differently and perhaps more efficiently. It is not possible just to roll our last year’s programs and hope for the best. Each activity or program needs to be reviewed and adapted to current circumstances. Some of them may need to be postponed for a while. But base your decisions on what you are being told. Test each one with trusted members of your community before taking action.
We have stressed the importance of communication in each of our updates and our third principle is Be in Contact. There will now be a chance for some smaller, carefully monitored gatherings, especially if they can be held outdoors or in large spaces, and this provides an opportunity for some very direct communication. Yet not everyone can come to these gatherings, and not everyone will want to. So it is important to have a second and third channel of communication to try and reach all parts of your community. Again, don’t make assumptions. Not everyone over 70 is incapable of joining a zoom meeting or event. Social media is not the exclusive domain for people under 35. Letters, cards and phone calls should not be reserved just for older people and your major donors.
Think carefully again about what you are communicating. People generally do want to hear about how your institution has coped with the pandemic, how it has supported students and what it will be doing for the rest of the year. They will be interested in what sporting and cultural activities can take place. If you have had projects under way for the last three months, visual as well as reported progress is a strong way to show your institution is moving forward. The main principle in communication is to make sure your information is clear and has a purpose – especially when everyone is being bombarded by communications from just about any institution they have ever been near.
Since you cannot hold large gatherings, galas or reunions, you need to work out alternative plans for keeping that level of engagement and enthusiasm to deliver on our fourth principle: Be Connected. Modern technology is a great help here and, while virtual gatherings are not the same as the real thing, and probably can never totally replace them, they can get you through to next year. There are many examples around the world of successful virtual events, so investigate what others are doing and adapt their successes to create your own.
Examples of new forms of best practice in alumni activities and fundraising are appearing regularly. A judicious monitoring of such reports, examples and claims will help you be nimble and adaptive with your own programs.
When you review your fundraising plans for the rest of the year, imagine how different members of your family might respond to different approaches be alert to our fifth principle: Be attuned and sensitive. Think of the generational differences in attitudes towards both the object of the request for support, and the means of asking.
Community fundraising with ‘touch-free’ ways of donating will be prevalent throughout the rest of the year. Check that your systems are in place and working well, and also that the purposes of the fundraising are appropriate to the current times and situations.
Major gifts are almost certainly not going to materialise out of thin air or from a general appeal for support. Major gifts invariably come when the right person (or people) ask for the right cause at the right time. If face-to-face cultivation is going to be difficult, or impossible, for some of your best prospects, have you worked out a strategy for how to engage with them and move them towards a solicitation, possibly involving another influencer. As with any solicitation, make sure you practise a dress-rehearsal before you try it for real.
Even some essential components such as your Case for Support need reassessment. A nice glossy publication may not be appropriate or the best way forward at the moment, especially as you may not be meeting a potential supporter in person. What other means do you have to achieve impact around your Case and yet still have something impactful to leave with your prospect, beyond a simple PDF? Talk to your design team and communications department and work of new approaches, and test them with your trusted community members before you adopt them fully.
In our last update, we focussed on bequests. While not wishing to revisit that ground again so soon, we cannot over-emphasise the importance of investing into this particular fundraising program. It is a longer-term series of returns, of course, but think of those institutions both at secondary as well as tertiary level which are weathering the immediate and associated impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic most successfully. They generally have built their reserves of capital and assets and, most importantly, their endowments. Being able to draw on an endowment at a time of crisis can help alleviate some of the more immediate pressures facing an institution. And endowments generally are built up over many years through bequests which have been guided or directed towards the long-term sustainability of an institution and the benefit of its community. Endowment fundraising has become somewhat unfashionable over the last decade or so as capital projects have taken priority to demonstrate the superiority of one institution against others. Scholarship support, too, has become an important focus for fundraising because of its immediate and personal impact on real people and their families. As we emerge on the other side of the pandemic crisis, however, it is the perfect opportunity to plan for the future through investment in a bequest program with proper planning and resourcing. Many members of our community have been forced to think carefully about their personal legacy and their wills during the pandemic, especially older members. Some may be wary of making a large gift now but could consider a bequest. Now is the time to start engaging with them in that process.
We have talked about stewardship many times and it is, of course, a somewhat generalist term. As our sixth principle, we would urge you to Be Thankful. Stewardship does not take place only after a gift has been made. Every part of the fundraising cycle is a form of stewardship, and is a manifestation of your communications strategy. As with every suggestion already made, good stewardship depends on listening to your community members and responding to their needs, anxieties and hopes. For many, a call or a card will be enough to let them feel you are thinking of them and seeking to support them. For others, consider some carefully crafted and personalised means of thanking them and making them feel genuinely valued. There are excellent examples available of powerful stewardship initiatives, even in the time of Covid-19. It is worth seeking them out and learning from them.
All institutions and their communities have been affected by Covid-19. In this country, we are indeed lucky and fortunate that the actions taken at State and Federal levels have prevented the horrors that were originally modelled and projected. With currently just over 100 deaths across the entire country compared with what we see around the world, we have cause to feel thankful. But while the pandemic swept the world with unexpected speed and power, the recovery will take far, far longer and will be incremental. In our institutions and offices, we will need to take small, careful steps as we feel our way forward. With careful thought and planning, we can build upon the good will and passion which our communities have in our institutions. We will need to be as nimble, responsive and adaptable with ourselves and our programs as we can, as we establish our own ‘new normal’. So, reach out to your networks, look to best practice around the world, share your own experiences and above all …
Stay well. Stay connected. Stay focused.
Please feel free to get in touch with us to discuss any points which we raise here or how we may be able to help.