What Over 600 Fundraisers Told Us About Donor Engagement During COVID-19

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchApril 1, 2020

Last week, we hosted a large group of fundraisers and advancement professionals to talk about fundraising during COVID-19. We heard that institutions are continuing to talk to donors and fundraising continues in sensitive, creative and new ways. Much of this work focuses on helping immediate needs due to the health crisis. Here are the results of four key poll questions and some highlights from the discussion.

Fundraising continues, with a few changes and some inspiring campaigns

Most of the higher education fundraisers we have talked with have modified their appeals, including messaging and volume. Fundraising has not stopped, however. Many institutions found that donors were very interested in stepping up to help students.

Fundraising during COVID-19: 
Fundraising continues, with sensitivity to the crisis
High majority of programs still making fundraising appeals, with changes.

Emergency funds have received extraordinary response during the past two weeks. For example, The University of Cincinnati’s has already passed $160,000 in contributions. If you haven’t started a fund yet, you’re probably missing a chance to engage donors who want to help. On the RNL Crowdfunding Powered by Scalefunder platform alone, we’ve received over $2M in donations for emergency funds. We outline other successful funds in the full online panel discussion (click here to watch the presentation).

Gift officers continue outreach

Gift officers may be grounded for now, but they’re all learning to work remotely and find ways to connect with donors.

Fundraising during COVID-19: Gift officers are still contacting donors
Gift officers continue to reach out to donors.

Gift officers tell us that check-in calls to donors, emails, and texting is appreciated. Many donors are asking how they can help, even amidst a volatile stock market and uncertainty about the economy. We’ve heard plenty of jokes abound about “getting those contact reports you’ve been sitting on” done. Many officers I know are also using their time at home to review their portfolios and do prospect research.

Giving Days are largely on, with key shifts to help immediate needs

Over three-quarters of schools do some form of giving day, and about half of them are in the spring. There’s been a need to shift strategy. Most institutions will still do a giving day this year after they make some shifts to messaging, include or fully focus on an appeal for emergency funds, and change the timing of their giving day.

Fundraising during COVID-19: 42% moving forward with spring or summer giving day
Giving days are still on, with some timing and messaging changes.

Institutions have had success this spring, such as Cornell University’s $7M day. I’d encourage any institution thinking about dropping their giving day to shift message, features, and timing instead. After all, you have probably already invested a ton of work to get your giving day ready. They build significant excitement. Plus donors are looking for something to be part of right now, and giving days provide that opportunity in a very social way.

Fundraisers are re-imagining the future

The biggest thing I’ve heard from fundraisers is interest in digital, integrated, and germ-free communication to maintain donor engagement. This means a big shift from in-person meetings and events and perhaps a significant shift to strategy going into the 2021 fiscal year.

80% of fundraisers say the crisis will change their approach to FY 2021
Strategy for FY21 is shifting.

Fundraisers know this is a game changer. Goals, strategies and use of technology will change.

Many of the technologies like p2p texting, personalized video, and online ambassadors have been improved, and are now integrated into other appeal strategies. They are also more cost effective. When these digital appeals are used in concert with major gift work, direct mail and calling, everything improves. The shift to integrated, digitally boosted appeals is a big one we’ve made at RNL.

Find out more about fundraising during COVID-19

Knowing what to do next is one of the most difficult hurdles for fundraising during this challenging time, so we want to provide you with as many resources as possible.

About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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