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See GivingDNA in action alongside your peers in fundraising. Tour the Platform on 5/26/21 @ 12pm CDT.

The COVID-19 pandemic ruptured many of the usual practices and procedures in higher-ed fundraising. What’s left is a new normal—one marked by uncertainty and scrambling to find some solid footing. In this season, reliable data is essential for making informed fundraising strategy decisions. 

Last month, we surveyed a group of higher-ed fundraising stakeholders to gauge their overall sentiment and areas of focus to help us develop proper messaging and resources to be most helpful to that market. The survey results became the priority topics for discussion at our Higher Ed Roundtable event on June 11. The following five approaches were discussed and provide excellent guidance for higher-ed fundraising amid the pandemic.


Higher-ed fundraising can rise and fall on perception. Fundraisers must manage donor and alumni expectations regarding the purpose and use of funds by connecting it back to the overall mission. Recent global challenges provide an opportunity for education, says Elizabeth Donaldson, University of Richmond, who shares that their endowment has been wrongly perceived as merely “a rainy day fund.” Donaldson says that virtual donor meetings “with the president or our executive director for business and finance provide some language and messaging around how we use that and need it.” Here are a few more takeaways from the roundtable discussion to help you shape donor and alumni expectations:

  • Prepare your constituents for a variety of outcomes for the fall semester in terms of class schedules, sporting events, and virtual classes
  • Reiterate your institution’s missional goals of higher ed


Many higher-ed institutions have long-term capital campaigns that began well before the challenges of 2020 hit. The financial needs today are much different, however. Adrian Owen, assistant vice president of advancement services at LSU Foundation, shares how their campaign “was raising money for professorships and chairs and so many things that are not the university’s strategic needs [now]…. We’ve started to shift toward scholarships … and under-represented students. … What’s exciting is that I think it’s going to ultimately result in an end campaign that is a lot more impactful to the university as a whole.” 

Here are a few more takeaways from the roundtable discussion that may help you adjust your fundraising focus:

  • If you were nearing the close of your capital campaign, consider a final micro campaign push to wrap it up on a positive note to move forward with new energy
  • Consider extending the campaign to give your team time to adjust to the challenges


Our survey results found that higher eds are experiencing hiring freezes and cuts in professional development. But that doesn’t mean the budgetary need is decreasing. Investments are on the rise for virtual learning strategies, including support technology infrastructure. Classroom camera systems and streaming platforms need to be added or updated. 

Adrian Owen explains that “whereas previously [students] might just be getting a lecture and taking notes, now in this new format they actually anticipate it being a highly engaging environment, actually drive down the student-to-teacher ratios.” In addition, current dollars need to be allocated to student families impacted by COVID job losses and to create on-campus food pantries—which means higher ed cases for support are being amended to incorporate these new and unexpected messages. Here are a few more takeaways from the roundtable discussion to help you focus on virtual program funding:

  • Shape the benefits of a higher-ed experience for your donors and potential students
  • Virtual classrooms will require proper tech—which could be costly—so get educated on the latest delivery options


So much of higher-ed donor development hinges on face-to-face meetings, which has come to a screeching halt due to the pandemic. Out of necessity, fundraisers have shifted gears from in-person contact to virtual. Eric Barrett, chief development officer for the University of Michigan, Michigan Medicine, says, “We’ve done a lot of webinars. As you can imagine, there’s an appetite for information about COVID and other health issues. We’re starting to do some TED Talks, about 8- to 10-minute. … We’ve engaged with people in different ways than we [ever] thought.” Of course, your organization’s ability to pivot to virtual engagement depends on how you’ve used technology in the past. If you’ve never hosted a webinar, your learning curve is steep. Here are a few more takeaways from the roundtable discussion that may spark your virtual engagement:

  • Consider a short-term adjustment to your fundraising metrics
  • Host a virtual cocktail hour with select donors and prospects; take it up a notch with branded glasses sent ahead to your participants
  • Try Zoom for major donor updates (up to 25 donors), advisory board meetings, and even major gift asks



These highlights are just a portion of the discussion from our Higher Ed Roundtable. Download a summary of the key findings here.