How the pandemic is changing college fundraising

Dive Brief:

  • College fundraising priorities have “shifted significantly” in the last two months, according to a survey of nearly 400 advancement professionals by consulting firm Washburn & McGoldrick.
  • Teams are focusing more on raising money for financial aid, virtual instruction and to amass unrestricted funds. Meanwhile, they’re de-emphasizing support for capital projects and their endowments.
  • Prior surveys indicate advancement teams expect philanthropy to decrease because of the pandemic. The latest survey points out how officials in different fundraising roles are adapting.

Dive Insight:

One-third of respondents expect it will take their business area up to a year to recover from the pandemic, while one-quarter say it could take between one and two years. Major gift officers and alumni relations officers were more likely than advancement leaders to have a longer view.

Similarly, advancement leaders were more confident than gift officers that their institutions would reach their fundraising goals for the 2021 fiscal year. Still, just 25% of the former and 13% of the latter group said they were confident they would meet that benchmark. About half of both groups were “somewhat” confident they would.

Two in five college fundraisers responding to a recent survey from consulting firm EAB expect new philanthropic revenues to drop at least 10% in the coming year. A decrease in big gifts was particularly concerning, respondents noted.

Colleges’ fundraising priorities are changing in response to the pandemic, which shuttered campuses nationwide and created uncertainty about when and how they will reopen. Eighty-five percent of respondents to Washburn & McGoldrick’s survey are emphasizing financial aid, while nearly three-quarters said the same about unrestricted operating funds. They are de-emphasizing capital projects (41%), the endowment (10%), faculty support (6%) and academic programs (5%).

The crisis is also changing how advancement officials connect with prospects. More than 80% of respondents paused on- and off-campus meetings with donors and alumni. A similar share said they increased use of email and video meetings for prospecting. Two-thirds are relying more on phone calls, and just over one-third are leaning into social media outreach.

Between 80% and 90% of respondents, depending on job title, said the pandemic would change how they reached out to alumni, donors and prospects in the long term.

EAB found that one in five fundraisers expected visits to drop by 30% or more in fiscal 2020. An uptick is likely in 2021, but that may not happen in time to boost that year’s revenue.

The uncertainty and changes in advancement come as colleges look to philanthropic support to offset an anticipated decrease in state funding and volatile tuition revenue. While giving rose across higher ed in 2019, it didn’t do so evenly. Support to private bachelor’s institutions fell 5.4% that year, according to data from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Donors haven’t fled the scene entirely. The head of Netflix this week announced a $120 million donation to the United Negro College Fund and Spelman and Morehouse colleges. And several smaller efforts have helped schools address financial need in light of the pandemic.

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