What Advancement Leaders Told Us About Fundraising in a Pandemic and Their FY21 Plans

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchAugust 5, 2020

We recently surveyed donor engagement professionals, most in higher education, as part of our ongoing Advancement Leaders Speak series, which to date has seen responses by more than 5,000 fundraising professionals. The first survey, in May and June, had 238 responses and told us that experiences with fundraising in a pandemic varied widely. We recently unpacked the results in a recorded webinar with experts from SMU, University of Georgia and Tufts University.

You can still contribute to our second survey and share your key challenges and strategies for FY21, and we’ll be releasing results soon. Our surveys will continue every few weeks through the coming year to provide you with insights from peers.

In this first post-COVID survey, we asked several open-ended questions to measure the pulse of fundraising leaders. Here are some key findings from our May/June survey about how fundraisers felt about their donor engagement at the end of FY20 and plans for the coming year.

Most institutions shifted to immediate needs for fundraising and are going digital and remote

Many survey respondents offered insights about their shift to student emergency funds, changing messages, and shift in channels as in-person engagement, student ambassadors, and even direct mail became challenging or impossible. We’ve all shifted to video meetings, and integrated online giving experiences like crowdfunding have done well. There’s a clear rise in the plans for digital engagement in the coming year. Video meetings, recorded video greetings, social media, and texting were the top channels that fundraisers plan to increase in the coming year.

The most effective things that fundraisers say they did centered on this personal, largely digital outreach, as well as shifting focus to immediate needs. Reaching out to key donors personally, especially by phone and video, was highly effective.

Fundraising in a pandemic: most effective ways to engage alumni and donors
Personal outreach and digital, remote engagement were the most effective during the onset of the COVID outbreak.

This survey was conducted before remote student ambassador engagement came online, and many institutions have since had success with remote engagement centers (that thing we used to call phonathon). We’re updating these results with our next survey to see how plans have changed.

Fundraisers find hope in the response of donors and their colleagues

We asked, “What have you learned from donors in your experience engaging with them during these unprecedented times?” The most common responses noted how donors stepped up, even under financial restraints. Fundraisers said that direct communication was appreciated by donors, and while some leadership givers had to pause on long commitments, the response to outreach was very strong.

Fundraising in a pandemic: what have you learned from donors?
Fundraisers say that donors stepped up quickly to address immediate pandemic needs.

The majority of responses to, “What have you learned about your colleagues?” were positive. Fundraisers find their colleagues eager, adaptable, and say remote working is going well. The top negative comment was that offices were too slow to act, and many respondents expressed concern about the mounting stress.

Fundraising in a pandemic: what have you learned about your colleagues?
Fundraisers largely say that their colleagues adapted quickly, and remote work is going well.

When we asked what fundraisers wished they had done differently, the most common responses were unhappiness about cancelling a giving day or waiting too long to engage donors.

Fundraising in a pandemic: What do you wish you had done differently?
Fundraisers mostly regret not acting sooner to directly engage donors.

Feelings about fundraising leadership varied

We saw responses along a wide continuum when we asked “What have you learned about your institutional leadership.” Responses varied from positive commentary about the speed at which the institution responded to student and educational needs, to complaints about significant slowdowns as leadership acted cautiously with donor engagement.

Comments on institutional leadership
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As we’ve shared before, institutions who continued strong donor engagement during this period have done well. Economic concerns may pump the brakes a bit with major donors, but institutions have actually set records during this time as supporter step up to help immediate needs.

In FY21, most fundraisers will have tighter resources, but the same or higher goals.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of fundraisers expect a budget decrease in FY21, with the majority anticipating a 10-20 percent cut. Over three-quarters also indicated the loss of staff, with the majority of this group saying that open positions will not be filled.

As we’ve seen before during times of high institutional need, goals will not decrease, however. Eight out of ten fundraisers say they expect either the same goals or an increase goal for donor count or dollars raised.

81% of fundraisers expect the same goals or an increase in goals.
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This means that “business as usual” won’t work in the coming year. Institutions need to adopt data-driven, personalized outreach strategies to maximize the use of scarce resources. With fewer staff, and budgets likely to shift further over the course of the year, fundraisers can’t run on autopilot.

We’ll be sharing the results of the second survey soon, and again, we invite you to participate. You can also reach out to us to discuss the latest strategies and solutions your peers are employing to maximize donor engagement and meet our important FY21 goals.

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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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