Major & Principal Giving, Talent & Training

These are unusual and unexpected circumstances with the global spread and concern about COVID-19. For those in the development and advancement field, it brings up questions of how to best do our work. We believe some of the most important development work can and should continue to take place, even if it is best to be remote.

As has been the case at times in our past, travel and in-person meetings are slowing or will be rescheduled to a later time. However, this is a great time to find ways to stay connected with your donors and prospective donors, including:

  • Phone calls or video calls: intentionally setting a time to connect can make a strong impression on your prospects and donors and can show that you care and are interested in them.
  • Tell the story of your institution and why now it is as important as ever for supporters to come together because of the life-changing and important work you are doing/enabling.
  • Find moments to thank and inform donors about the impact of their past gifts.

Organizational partners, such as department heads, deans, faculty, researchers, executive directors, and other key leaders, can play a vital and strategic role during this period as well. Organizations should craft a “high-impact” list of prospects, donors, and volunteers to whom these organizational partners can reach out. The content and message of the outreach is similar to that of frontline gift officers, but the simple act of outreach demonstrates to the donor how valued these relationships are to your organization.

Think about the timing of your outreach—both because of the volatility of the markets and the impact it has on individuals’ sense of wealth and also because of the potential stress due to current circumstances. During the Great Recession, we learned that prospects and constituents still wanted to connect with our institutions, even if their current ability to give was uncertain or limited. Those institutions that continued to reach out, check in, and talk about their programs were the places that experienced greater success once the recovery started. Continuing your message of relevancy is important, but it is important to balance messaging between providing updates, soliciting contributions, and asking for other forms of support (advocacy, interactions online, referrals). Framing your value and importance in a way that fits the issues of the moment is critical to donors and prospects seeing this outreach as beneficial instead of potentially off-putting.

For gift officers working remotely, a break from travel can create opportunities for creative and critical thought about prospect management. Delving deep into prospect strategy, updating cultivation and solicitation plans, and ensuring that contact reports are logged in the system are all ways that gift officers can continue to move relationships and strategies forward, even when circumstances keep them from face-to-face meetings.

What about the impact of these uncertain times and limited travel on other areas of Advancement? It is likely that most events will be postponed or canceled over the coming weeks and months. However, there is an opportunity to reimagine these events as virtual experiences. Platforms exist to convene groups remotely to facilitate discussion and information sharing.

Giving Days. Many of our clients are wrestling with how/if to proceed with giving days occurring later in the spring. Careful attention should be paid to messaging, but the need for resources continues. Postponing giving days until later this year may interrupt an expected cadence among our donors. Additionally, some organizations are finding new needs in the ability to deliver remote services as a result of the pandemic. This is an especially compelling case for support, because it is hyper relevant and timely. You may consider tactfully leveraging the opportunity to communicate a need that has been uncovered due to the coronavirus.

Communications. One of the greatest risks we have in this moment is appearing insensitive and out of touch to our donors. Messaging in general is important to consider at this time. Think about messages that continue to ring true, and which ones should wait for another time. Acknowledging the present challenges, while still articulating the ongoing needs is important.

Major Giving. Volatility in the stock market over the last few weeks has some major and principal donors shaken. For those in existing commitments, now is the time to communicate with them. They may wish to delay pledge payments or pull back altogether. Be ready to validate those concerns while offering creative solutions that still allow them to support the people and programs so dear to them. Planned giving officers are excellent thought partners to generate creative, non-cash funding solutions.

Digital Development Officers. Well-trained digital engagement officers are already enjoying fundraising success with international prospects and those closer to home who prefer a full or partial digital experience. Even after the pandemic passes, donors and prospects will find a mix of online and in-person engagement more convenient; all audiences—including major donors—are increasingly inspired to give via powerful online video content; and most of us will continue receiving the majority of our information through online channels. Now might be the time to seriously consider how this difficult situation could be the opportunity to explore new approaches to more efficiently and effectively engage donors and prospects through digital development officers.

Planned Giving. While many of us think about planned giving as estate commitments and legacy gifts, the reality is that a skilled planned giving team can help donors reimagine their philanthropy through creative solutions well beyond simple bequests. For those worried about potential financial challenges ahead, planned giving teams can talk to donors about secure and replicable vehicles which produce consistent revenue streams. For other donors with complex assets, planned giving can play a vital role in thinking through how best to leverage and utilize those assets to have a direct impact on our organizations.

Annual Giving. The resources may be needed more than ever, but programs should focus on how to best deliver the message and request. Are there particular funds that could promote the organization while also feeling relevant to the time? Remind those closest to your organization the power of the annual or current gift. When there is high volatility in markets, donors may limit their pledges and longer-term commitments. Make sure to help them see how their support to an annual campaign can be impactful for your mission.

Advancement Services. Do these teams have access to the tools and resources they need to do their jobs remotely? Specifically, many individuals in these roles may have desktop computers or need access to resources located physically on your main campus or main building. Clarify messaging around who needs to be physically present (IT administrators, gift processing, etc.) and expectations for remote work. There may be opportunities for advancement services to provide web-based trainings or refresher courses on technologies/tools that major gift officers have access to but have thus far been underutilizing.

Prospect Development. Ensure staff members have access to their tools and resources to perform their tasks remotely. Now is a great time to collaborate on discussing relationship mapping, prospect strategies, or fundraising forecasting with colleagues in prospect research, relationship management, or data science. The shifts in markets are a good reminder to schedule a wealth screening for a date in the not-too-distant future, especially if it has been a few years since the last screening.

Alumni Engagement. Educational institutions have spent countless hours cultivating and nurturing networks of committed and dedicated alumni dispersed throughout the country and the globe. For many of them, their primary activities have been focused on bringing people together through gatherings. Now is the time to challenge those groups to think about digital engagement, utilizing social media and technology to reimagine their activities. Opportunities exist to create virtual communities which may play a role in keeping people connected during social distancing periods. Alumni engagement should be seen as an extension of the community and show the current value of this group. Post 9/11, many people were longing for community as lives were shaken and disrupted. Alumni groups and other geographic-based organizations can provide that sense of community without having to physically gather. One example is online book clubs that allow for sharing ideas and community.

Board and Volunteer Engagement. Spring often brings board meetings and other functions drawing our most committed volunteers together. With in-person meetings being postponed, many organizations are turning to virtual meetings and electronic information sharing. The most proactive groups have been using this method for years and report that communication has increased and discussion during meetings has been more strategic. Embrace technology to continue engaging your board in the important work of your organization.

In uncertain times in the past, focusing on your organization’s core mission and continuing to communicate and engage constituents has been successful. When budgets were tight, creative approaches helped bridge the gaps. Lessons learned from the Great Recession can provide a path or ideas for us to use today. BWF is committed to advancing the field and are pleased to offer these recommendations to help your teams through this tough period. We have partnered with clients for more than 30 years and believe that experience can inform your important work. Please reach out to us if we can help you in any way at