How to hit your fundraising goals during an economic downturn

When soliciting gifts, donors are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get, so you might as well ask.

As the pandemic continues to wane, schools are reinvigorated to network with alumni and the community at large for charitable donations. As the U.S. currently tiptoes through a recession scare and a shaky geopolitical landscape, however, schools may be tempted to close up shop again. Doing so could prove costly.

Higher ed institutions that reported slowing down their outreach during the recent pandemic now face a decreased pool of potential donors and are forced to play catch-up. To avoid finding themselves behind the eight ball, institutions should know how to effectively fundraise if—or when—things fly south.

EAB senior director Dr. R. Fleming Puckett worked with schools’ chief advancement officers who have endured multiple recessions in the 21st century, and here are some of the biggest lessons learned.

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Continue to network with prospects

Schools may choose to cut their advancement budget when navigating rough economic waters, but that doesn’t mean they should stop reaching out. Donors are more likely to give when they’re still “warm” from a recent function, according to Puckett, which means networking events continue to be important even on a shoestring budget.

It isn’t about whether schools should be willing to host a social mixer or virtual meeting during tough times, it’s about how to maximize the potential of every dollar spent when hosting one.

“What we’re seeing is more institutions saying we need to understand the ROI of our events, whether they’re online or in person,” said Puckett. “We need to understand more about what we’re putting into these, why we are hosting these, and what we’re getting out of them.”

Approach donors with optimism

Recessions affect individuals and organizations differently, and the only way to truly gauge how feasible a donation would be from a prospect is by asking.

“Advancement leaders should trust their development officers to read those relationships and know when it’s the right time to put an idea in front of a particular prospect,” said Puckett. “We will learn as we go which donors are and are not able to give to those initiatives at any given moment, but shutting down on the advancement side really seems to be a bad idea.”

While it’s important not to be tone-deaf, assuming no one is in the market for philanthropy can have serious repercussions on a school’s advancement efforts in the years to come.

Appeal to donor interest

Soliciting an individual, say, an alumnus/a, to donate during uncertain times may not be as effective as asking a robust institution, so it’s important to understand how to effectively appeal to individuals. Foundations and corporations view their philanthropy as an investment, and the key for schools to win their interest in both cases lies in the school’s ability to flex its accomplishments and potential capabilities if gifted funding.

“Universities and colleges as well do wonderful work that advances knowledge and helps solve global challenges, but they’re often terrible at telling people about it. They’re not good at bragging,” Puckett says. “Just getting the word out about the great work they’re doing could help find individuals and organizations who would like to be a part of that and feel like they are a part of making a difference in the world.”

As schools increasingly rely on foundations and corporate and community donors beyond their typical alumni base, it’s even more important for schools to view their endowments as money invested in them for worldly gain.

Fundraising is only possible with dedicated staff on the payroll

Schools may misstep and lay off advancement staff to remedy a contracted budget, but Puckett believes that decision leaves money—a lot of it—on the table. At the typical higher ed institution, EAB’s research has shown that every full-time equivalent advancement staff member correlates to $788,000 in fundraising production. Advancement staff in development support and advancement services, two administrative roles that boost fundraising efficiency, correlate with another $1.3 million and $859,000, respectively.


Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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