David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: Our Shift to Remote Fund Raising

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

One vital area of the academic enterprise didn’t get much attention in the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis — perhaps because it involves fewer people than teaching or research. Still, fund raising is about to be as severely affected by anti-coronavirus measures as any other part of academe.

That’s because the way that academic administrators and development officers raise money is mostly up close and personal. We fly to a city, drive to a location, meet or have a meal with a donor, discuss and solicit philanthropy. Tactile engagement, face to face, is absolutely fundamental — until suddenly it can’t be.

Yet the financial needs of a college or university don’t vanish just because fewer people are on the campus physically. We still must have new scholarships for students, support for faculty research, and money for everything else that fund raising helps propel in academe.

So what happens when you can’t engage personally in an activity that is so personal?

Development is a team effort, even virtually. The No. 1 mantra to always chant — especially in a time of crisis, or, more routinely, when you are new to an academic-administrative job that requires fund raising — is: "I am not alone."

As a dean or chair, you probably have worked with staff members in the development office before. The campus foundation and the institutional-advancement office support both academic administrators and development staff members. Very likely, you have already received communications from them about evolving policies and procedures. They may have sent suggestions for actions in the new reality and templates for possible communications with donors or others relevant to the fund-raising mission.

Now is the time to make sure that all of you are in sync. You do not want to make a misstep. As I cautioned in a 2018 essay for campus administrators on crisis communication and in a more-recent column on how middle managers (deans, chairs, and the like) can help in the Covid-19 crisis, you don’t want to say or do anything that contradicts official policies. And, of course, those policies may be changing to react to, or get ahead of, the latest developments.

So confer with the fund-raising professionals on your campus. Start putting together a plan. What are you going to say to donors in general, and how will you say it? What content will vary for different individual donors or groups of donors? For example, a donor who gave a scholarship might want reassurance that students are still officially enrolled and thus his or her generosity will continue to bear fruit. Which donors might require a phone call, or an email, or a text message, or a video chat, or even a paper letter or card? You and the team will figure it out.

Stick to the facts. Everyone and everything is being affected by our global pandemic. Donors are probably keeping up with news from your institution, either through friends, children, grandchildren, or some other personal connection, or via traditional or social media. Nevertheless, you are better informed than most of them about the exact details of coronavirus-inspired adjustments underway on your campus.

Different donors may have different levels of interest in how your institution is coping — some curious about every detail, others wanting only broad strokes. Start out with a general report, and then drill down depending on the intensity and depth of the questions you are asked.

Here, as always, be factual, not speculative. Do not give any opinions that you would be unhappy seeing later in a tweet or on the front page of a local paper. On most campuses, the narrative is largely the same: We are moving classes to an online format; we are trying to figure out complex situations affecting teachers, researchers, staff members, and students. Everyone is working diligently to come up with sustainable solutions.

On the other hand, don’t play down the magnitude of the problems. Higher education’s future is going to be very, very difficult. We know it, and our external friends should know it.

Embrace old, and new, forms of distance outreach. For years now, we have been using technology to communicate with donors in ways other than face to face. Younger donors, in particular, may prefer being contacted by text or video calls, at least initially. Many institutions already do annual call-a-thons and mass mail-outs.

But here’s the important catch: We still tend to make "big asks" in person, at a restaurant, in a living room.

I suspect that donors — no matter their generation or situation — will appreciate the same cautions in their lives and businesses that your institution has been practicing. So reach out to them, and see what they are comfortable with. If they are willing to have deep conversations on the phone or via Zoom, great. Perhaps business can be as usual, in a way. Others will be uncomfortable discussing serious philanthropy in any way other than face to face — in such cases, accept that you will be putting off business until a later date.

Whatever their communication preference, make a point to appreciate the philanthropist (or the potential one) beyond the act of giving itself. Keeping in touch, even when you are not making a big ask, has always been part of advancement and development. You can even seek their help in nonmonetary projects that can be done remotely. For example, I am asking some of our alumni to participate in short videos offering advice to graduating seniors facing an uncertain job market.

Explain the negatives and the opportunities. One would hope that donors might see the heroic struggles at your institution as an opportunity to help. But, of course, they may be suffering financially as much as colleges and universities. Don’t assume anyone’s largess is as possible as it was two months ago.

In these uncertain times, big asks must be planned carefully and put forth with nuance. Very likely, the first suggestion may originate from a donor rather than from you. But there are definitely immense and pressing needs on every campus right now:

  • Students need more scholarship money than ever. Some face unexpected technology costs in order to continue their coursework from home. Many students who were working to support themselves in venues like restaurants and hotels have been laid off or had their hours cut.
  • Colleges and universities have lost tremendous revenue in canceling study-abroad trips or reimbursing students for dining and housing contracts.
  • We are investing more than ever in technology to make sure that faculty and staff members working at home can do their jobs supporting research and teaching.

The list goes on and on, and I’m sure you can already add dozens of items. Again, without using a rhetorical hammer, we need help — from anyone who is willing to give it.

For academic administrators, fund raising often entails traveling between two worlds: the campus and all its traditions, processes, and folkways versus the very different arena of the business world of most donors. Your responsibilities have not diminished in either realm but have grown ever greater, more pressing, and more complicated. Follow some basic rules in your communications, and donors will understand, empathize, and maybe even extend assistance.

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