Fundraising during a pandemic

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It is imperative that community colleges be well-funded and supported to fulfill their key role in society and in the physical, economic and social rehabilitation and recovery of this country. Thankfully, community colleges have an incredible case for support — now more than ever.

But how does fundraising work in the midst of a pandemic? How can you connect to donors when so many of the regular means of social interaction are unavailable? How do you change in-person fundraising events to an online format, and should you even try?

Here are some general recommendations:

Embrace the moment

First and foremost, don’t pretend that things are normal. Nothing about the current funding landscape is normal. Carefully review your fundraising strategic plans, goals, collateral, policies and procedures and adjust wherever necessary to better align with revised projections.

Ask for what you and your students need right now. Avoid general appeals whenever possible. Be specific on the ask and its impact.

Many institutions have forged new partnerships and relationships within their communities and beyond to address some of the cultural shifts or community priorities that have arisen during or because of the pandemic. Take advantage of those opportunities to identify new prospective donors or current donors whose interests may align with new initiatives.

Connect with donors

Whatever you do, don’t leave your donors alone! Phone calls. Texts. Zoom. Chat. Facebook Live. Google Hangouts. Social media. Whatever it takes — and in however they are most comfortable — connect with your donors no matter how engaged or unengaged they may be.

Show them you value them as individuals and learn how the pandemic has affected them before you even consider any sort of solicitation. Some colleges have even empowered non-foundation personnel to make simple stewardship phone calls to check in on current and past donors, thank them for their commitment, and let them know that you are all in this together.

You care about your donors, but they care about you, too. Consider engaging college leadership in updating major donors on the impact the pandemic has had on your ability to fulfill your mission, your institution’s response to the pandemic and how you continue to serve your students and community. Ask for their thoughts and reactions and share additional reassuring messages about long-term goals and strategies.

Some donors will ask on their own how they can help. Be ready with a variety of options tailored as much as possible to their unique areas of focus or interest.

Recalibrate your events

Don’t just hold an online event to check a box. Boil your event down to its key goals and values for your institution, sponsors and attendees. Can you still deliver on those goals and values in an online format? If so, then get creative and move forward with the online option.

After the event, make sure you debrief with your team: What was more difficult than expected? What went unexpectedly well or proved especially successful? Are there any new aspects of the online event that you had never done before that you would retain for future events regardless of delivery method?

If your event doesn’t lend itself well to the online treatment, consider postponing or canceling. Awards ceremonies, anniversaries or other annual celebrations can often be postponed until later in the year or rolled into the following year.

If canceling, ask attendees and sponsors to consider donating a portion or all of the cost of their ticket or sponsorship. Tell them about the importance of the revenue raised by the event, and use real-life examples Discuss the realities of your operating budget and the impact that the pandemic has had on it. That will only cast the power of their contribution in an even brighter light.

Take this opportunity to take a hard look at events, the resources required to execute them, the net revenue they raise and the value they provide for your institution. This may be the perfect opportunity to sunset some long-standing and resource-intensive events that would otherwise prove very difficult to discontinue.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education has a wide range of additional fundraising resources to help during this challenging time.

This article comes from the October/November issue of the Community College Journal, which is published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

About the Author

Marc Westenburg
is director of the Center for Community College Advancement at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).