burning questionsRecently, I hosted a webinar with my colleague Diana Frazier, our Senior Client Experience Leader at Veritus. The webinar was all around my recent 5-part blog series on “Great Fundraising Opportunities at Universities.” (If you haven’t read them, start here.)
Prior to the webinar, we asked folks to send in questions so we could answer them. People also sent in questions during the webinar.
We were inundated with so many great questions, we could only get to a small percentage of them. I thought that a great way to continue the discussion we’ve been having on Higher Ed fundraising was to highlight a few of the questions we received, and Diana and I would answer them for you as best we can.

Question: How can we make endowment fundraising attractive to alumni?
Answer: We really believe that it starts with learning if the donor cares more about “right now” or “enduring impact.” If now is more important, work with the donor there; then over time, as you demonstrate the impact of those current gifts, you can revisit any interest in the endowment. The key is really understanding your donor, building that relationship, and creating a plan that matches their passions and desires with the needs of your institutions. Not the other way around.

Question: Other than holding onto the donors we have by consistent communication, I’m not sure what to do to engage our donors right now. Our cultivation opportunities are minimal – no campus visits, no personal visits, no interaction with students or faculty. What should I do?
Answer: We suggest you tell the story of alumni and students. How are they faring during the pandemic? Tell the story of how your university is making changes to meet the current needs of your students and faculty. Ask younger alumni to support a fund that is relevant to them to begin the habits of giving.

Question: Do you have any thoughts on the optimal department structure for major gifts?
Answer: First, you need to have a manager that actually has time to manage the major gift officers. In almost every case we where we’ve worked with Universities, the manager has a full-time caseload of donors and a ton of administrative responsibilities that leave very little time to actively manage his or her staff. Second, make sure MGOs are 100% focused on their portfolios. Don’t allow them to get involved in planning events around campus. Again, this happens all the time. And third, make sure you have administrative support for your MGOs so they can remain focused on donors. Having one admin support for every 2-3 MGOs works great.

Question: What are the best digital stewardship and engagement tools you’ve seen working to unlock donor interest, that can replace campus visits and in-person activity?
Answer: We’ve seen quick, short videos bringing the donor or alumni to the scene be quite effective, as well as short updates by gift officers and program faculty. The videos should be no more than 2-3 minutes. Using products like Gratavid and Thankview are fairly easy to use. But don’t forget that a simple smart phone video that you can do yourself is very effective, because it’s real, and it’s now! The best story we heard recently was an executive director who made his own video (shaky as it was), and a donor committed $150K after receiving it. Simple can be very effective.

Question: How should we address the decline in donor participation engagement in higher ed?
Answer: Start building relationships with your donors and alumni. Too often the culture and the communication that is part of Higher Education is all about the institution. We believe that once you turn it around and focus on the donors and alumni and their passions and interests, they’ll become more engaged. I know we sound like we’re beating a dead horse here, but major gift fundraising really IS all about understanding the donor’s passions and interests, and matching them up with what your university is doing to change the world. When you do that, you see giving and engagement go way up.