Don Hasseltine, senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group, says fundraisers need to embrace the new reliance on online tools.
Don Hasseltine, senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group, says fundraisers need to embrace the new reliance on online tools.

The pandemic made the fate of higher ed development even less certain than it already was, raising a whole host of new questions. Will it bring alienated “middle-of-the-pyramid” donors back into the fold? Will alumni ramp up support for financial aid? Will fundraising plummet to levels that will rival or exceed losses seen during the Great Depression?

Don Hasseltine, a senior consultant and vice president at the Aspen Leadership Group, has two critical questions on his mind, in particular: How will COVID-19 change the day-to-day mechanics of higher ed fundraising, and how can professionals prepare for these changes? He predicts that online connection will play a significant role in fundraising for a long time to come—and those who embrace it stand to make their donor bases even stronger than they were before the pandemic.

Hasseltine, who has spent over 25 years in higher ed development, has been thinking about the evolution of the profession long before the pandemic struck. He served as vice president for advancement at Carleton College, Dickinson College and Colby-Sawyer College, and as the director of annual giving at Georgetown University and the University of Virginia. Most recently, he served as the vice president for development at Brown University, where he was instrumental in a $3 billion campaign.

“I’ve always wanted to capture trends and changes that can help us better our profession,” he told me. And so Hasseltine created the Coach’s Corner blog on Aspen’s site to help higher ed fundraisers navigate an evolving professional landscape. For instance, his pre-pandemic post titled “6 Shifts in Fundraising Practice You Will Not Want to Ignore” explores the growing use of AI technology, the fate of large capital campaigns, and how advancement teams can grow their donor communities.

One of Hasseltine’s big pre-pandemic focus areas was how technology was transforming the university advancement department. “Organizationally, I’m starting to see an analogy of where communications was 20 years ago. Back then, there were three ways to communicate—email, in-person and through print. Then along came social media, then video, then texting. Now, you need to operate on multiple channels, and you need the talent to do it.”

COVID-19 has accelerated this impeding migration toward a more virtual footprint. In as little as five years from now, Hasseltine envisions a model in which a majority of fundraisers engage donors online and from home, fundraising programming is mostly virtual, and—assuming leaders can navigate an effective transition—diminishing alumni engagement rates rebound and eventually eclipse pre-crisis levels.

The 75% Rule

The global pandemic has brought in-person events and visits to a halt, accelerating development departments’ migration to the kind of virtual programming that’s transforming the education space writ large. On his blog, Hasseltine encourages shops to “conduct a virtual 5K run and share stories and videos of the experience,” “create a digital outlet for alumni and friends to share their experiences during the crisis,” and “have the president conduct a weekly Zoom call with your top prospects.”

Hasseltine estimates that before COVID-19, 75% of alumni relations programming took place in person, either through meetings or events. “I think what the pandemic is showing is that we are probably going to move in the inverse direction,” he said. Within five years, “75% of what we’ll do will be virtual.” As intimidating as this sounds, it could be a very good thing for university fundraisers in the long term.

While event-centric alumni and development programs have been fundraisers’ go-to methods for drumming up support for the last several decades, they have had limited effectiveness, Hasseltine said, citing a steadily decreasing alumni participation rate over that last 25 years. This isn’t because alumni despise their alma maters and would never consider making a gift. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Approximately 92% of alumni said they had a wonderful college experience,” he said.

Rather, Hasseltine told me the problem is that 60% of alumni have effectively said, “I’m never coming to your events.” They don’t want to take time out of their busy schedules to drive three hours to sit in a banquet hall across from people they don’t know or fidget through hours of uninspired programming. In response, fundraisers collectively treat these alumni as a lost cause and turn their finite attention toward more lucrative “top of the pyramid” donors.

The Promise of Segmented Engagement

COVID-19 has given fundraisers an opening to reconnect with these disengaged alumni. “We’re seeing a surge in involvement from this community that we had not provided a lot of programming for,” Hasseltine said. “Advancement needs to build a larger toolbox and begin leading with virtual experiences, rather than in-person events.” One of his other pandemic-era recommendations for advancement shops is to “create an opportunity for reunion classes, especially older ones, to gather by Zoom.”

Fundraisers are learning that they can cultivate prospects through targeted virtual programming far more efficiently than in an in-person context. “Colleges and universities benefit from thinking across the continuum of one’s life,” Hasseltine said. “We need to segment engagement around early, mid-, and later adulthood. We need to deliver engagement in a hybrid way that is personal, through communications, and virtually.”

Hasseltine provided two examples of universities “adding value to our alums’ life and asking them to volunteer their talents based on where they are in their life stage.”

He cited an unnamed institution with expertise in epidemiology that offered a webinar from a faculty member on COVID-19. “Traditionally, this would be part of a roadshow as part of a regional alumni event that might draw 70 to 80 people,” he said. The virtual event drew 400 people. “My guess is there were many alums who would not have attended the event in person.”

Meanwhile, fundraisers at Colby College reached out to their alumni contacts to create a funnel of job opportunities for graduating seniors. Four hundred alumni produced roughly 600 opportunities. “Can you imagine the goodwill and brand boost for this kind of effort?” Hasseltine said.

But acknowledging that advancement shops need to ramp up their virtual footprint is only half of the equation. For directors to succeed, he argues, “we need to create the talent to do the work.”

“The Billion-Dollar Question”

Hasseltine envisions a new type of position within advancement—something akin to a “digital advancement officer”—that will emerge within five years. This individual will oversee an integrated shop where alumni relations, event stewardship, annual giving and communications all have a substantial virtual component. Three years from now, Hasseltine foresees some teams employing a model where gift officers work remotely in their dedicated geographic regions rather than being concentrated in one building on campus.

Under this model, staffers will virtually fundraise from the qualifying phase all the way to the ask itself. This sounds reasonable on paper, but it’s a bit trickier in practice. Fundraisers are currently equipped to work in an analog world—mingling at conferences, rubbing elbows at events and exchanging business cards in elevators. Operating mostly online will require a different skill set.

So for Hasseltine, the “billion-dollar question” is “Will prospects be responsive to a virtual engagement strategy?” Once again, the prognosis isn’t as dire as one might initially suspect. “Removing the psychology from the equation—the enjoyment of an in-person experience—gift officers actually have more tools in the toolbox remotely,” he said. For example, a dean, faculty member, or senior administrator is far more likely to be available for a 60-minute meeting with a prospect if it is done virtually rather than in person.

In his conversations with VPs and other fundraising professionals, Hasseltine has heard the following concerns regarding the migration toward hybrid/virtual fundraising:

  • How do I do discovery visits with new prospects in a virtual environment? Will donors be open to making six- and seven-figure commitments through virtual cultivation and solicitation?
  • What new skill sets do I need to add to my team to be effective in this new hybrid model?
  • How do I move fast enough to shift my team’s thinking from an event-driven to a virtual-driven alumni relations program?
  • How will I lead in a new hybrid model? How will I measure success?

“What I am hearing,” Hasseltine told me, “is that asking for annual gifts and stewarding these gifts virtually works quite well.” On the other hand, VPs and gift officers have told Hasseltine that they have found it more difficult to start a major gift prospect relationship in the virtual realm.

“Virtual Engagement is Here to Stay”

Given all of the changes afoot, what can higher ed fundraisers do right now from a professional development standpoint to prepare for this increasingly virtual future? Hasseltine provided five recommendations:

  1. Accept that change is permanent and a new and better way is ahead.
  2. Work with your team to create a new toolbox for your cultivation of prospects.
  3. Do a market study with prospects that you know well to inquire about this new landscape and seek their advice about what they would find appealing. Ask them about what other nonprofits are doing that they like.
  4. Become adept at using virtual platforms.
  5. Realize that we are all learning together, including your prospects, so be open to piloting new approaches and finding out what works.

“Like everything else,” the development shop of the future “will depend on the prospect and the gift officer,” Hasseltine said.

“With travel being limited, development leaders will need to spend time developing virtual approaches and trying new ways to open doors. It is too early to tell how this will play out, but I am betting that virtual engagement is here to stay and will eventually serve to enhance fundraising capacity.”

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