COVID-19 Student Emergency Funds: How They’re Being Distributed

Greta Daniels

Vice President, Fundraising

April 7, 2020

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, many universities have turned to student emergency funds to assist those students most greatly impacted by the global pandemic. Whether the funds are used to buy plane tickets for students unexpectedly cutting their study abroad experiences short, purchasing food and other necessities after dining halls and student stores closed for the semester, or covering the gap created by the loss of work study and part time campus jobs, these funds are meeting the immediate needs of your college community and giving donors an opportunity to lift students up.

We’ve seen some pretty inspiring calls to action from partners across the country and their alumni, parents and donors are responding quickly.

We have also received lots of questions about what comes next. What is the best way to distribute the funds raised? How should we steward those who have stepped forward and supported us?

COVID-19 campus emergency funds: How do we define best practice in an unprecedented situation?

I’ve been talking with RNL partners about how these funds are being administered. I also launched this informal poll to gather information and answer some of the common questions. From the poll and my network, here’s what I’ve heard so far:

  • About 2/3 had previously established student emergency funds prior to the crisis, but many are raising funds actively for these needs for the first time.
  • Funds are generally being made available for all kinds of needs, not just tuition or college/university-based expenses.
  • About half of institutions use an application that was already in place or a new application for students to apply for funds.
  • A substantial number are relying on insights and referrals from student affairs to determine the student recipients.
  • Tracking the use and impact of the funds varies. Tracking overall impact is common including the total statistics of amount of funds awarded and students helped.
  • One institution is taking it to an individual level: “we are creating profiles pre-award and following up post-award.” One institution reported that student affairs is sending weekly updates from the development team to be shared more widely.
  • Stewardship varies, and a number of people confessed that they haven’t figured this out yet. A couple of great examples out there include leveraging connections in the local, national and student media to spread the stories at scale as well as sending personalized thank yous in the mail.
  • One of the more innovative and rapid response stewardship mechanisms in play involves using videos directly from student ambassadors such as the president of the student government or personalized video thank yous from students utilizing ThankView. Check out how the Rebel Ringers at UNLV showed their appreciation for the support of their university. Video messages create authentic connection, provide donors with something they may watch (or share) again and again, and are a snap to produce from anywhere that your students are social distancing themselves.

Make your awards and your stewardship as immediate as your fundraising.

My biggest takeaway thus far: The speed and urgency with which universities distribute the funds and report back to the donors needs to match the ferocity of that campaign launch. If your university doesn’t already have the awarding and stewardship infrastructure in place (or perhaps has too much infrastructure in the way), you need to act fast and close those loops.

In the first two weeks of student emergency fund activity on RNL Crowdfunding, we saw over $2 million in donations. Clearly, donors want to help in this tough time. Building out good processes to track impact and thank donors will be crucial to building a deeper relationship with these givers.

We’d like to learn more about how your institution is promoting, distributing and stewarding the funds raised to meet the immediate needs of your students and community during the crisis. Drop me an email and I’ll update this post with more examples.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s easy to establish a fund today. We’re offering RNL Crowdfunding powered by ScaleFunder free to new clients until June 30. This tested and mobile-friendly engine can help you connect with donors in an immediate and social way. Contact us today to get started on the platform.

About the Author

Greta Daniels

Greta Daniels is a fundraising professional with more than a decade of experience in philanthropy. She has extensive expertise in donor engagement strategies, university advancement and development, and annual giving. In her current role, she...

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