Texas A&M’s Health Science Center has leaned into virtual fundraising. Photo: ShengYing Lin/shutterstock

Like most other nonprofits, institutions of higher education—and their fundraisers—entered into the pandemic era in a state of high trepidation over the flow of donor dollars. Of course, higher ed has been disrupted in some significant ways by the ongoing pandemic. Higher ed fundraising is also changing. But at the same time, many fundraisers are upbeat about the state of the field, and about donor support through the crisis.

While a few major gifts for institutions of higher education made headlines, what is more important is that, according to experts we interviewed, many colleges and universities met their fundraising goals during COVID. And while giving may have simultaneously increased to support other immediate, pandemic-related needs, neither individual institutions nor industry trends indicate that donations to higher education suffered overall as a result of that.

In fact, according to Ann Kaplan, a senior director from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), overall donations to higher education during the pandemic, and up until the present, have been quite static. CASE is a global nonprofit association dedicated to educational advancement, and its data is compiled from thousands of member institutions. Kaplan directs CASE’s extensive and authoritative Voluntary Support for Education research program.

“It is important to keep in mind that charitable giving is not the biggest revenue stream for higher education; at public institutions it comprises 10% of revenue while at private it goes up to 19%,” Kaplan said. “The biggest revenue streams are tuition, room and board, followed by government funding and income from endowments. So while the tuition, room and board segment may have turned down during the pandemic for any given institution, the other two resources remained steady.”

That is not to say there are not interesting and meaningful changes within the overall results—there are. One, which Kaplan pointed out, is an increase in the use of donor-advised funds. In fact, she said, “they grew larger than corporate giving as a category of donation sources. Rather than write personal checks, alums and other philanthropists are passing their wealth on through these funds.” While that data point has changed, she added, the necessity of maintaining the relationship with the donor has not.

Virtual tactics catch on

What changed for everyone was the absolute necessity to go virtual in an arena that is built on the strength of interpersonal relationships and interactions. Doing so brought undeniable benefits in many cases.

Belmont University, a private Christian institution in Nashville, Tennessee, founded in 1890, has 8,000 students. In May 2021, it successfully completed the largest fundraising campaign in its history—a seven-year push in which Belmont raised $300 million from 23,000 donors. While Belmont is a small school, alumni include notables such as country music artists Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood.

Dr. Perry Moulds, VP for development and external relations at Belmont University, said, “We were more comfortable than expected in terms of virtual. It gave us an opportunity to showcase our leaders online in a new way. It’s not going away as a strategy or as a touchpoint, especially for those not in the immediate vicinity. It gave us a broader engagement, both across campus and beyond.”

Larger schools have also leveraged virtual fundraising to good effect. Saying “Texas A&M” may bring to mind an image of 100,000 cheering football fans in Bryan Station. But within the behemoth school of 73,000, founded in 1862 as part of the Morill Act, is the Health Science Center, created in 1999, a professional school of 1,954 students that is forging its own fundraising path.

The Health Science Center is still somewhat in start-up mode, according to Assistant Vice President of Development Karen Slater. It is home to a Center for Research and the Schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy and Public Health. In June 2021, it received a $2 million planned gift for scholarships, eclipsing previous giving.

It has also enjoyed strong success with virtual events. Slater said that leveraging National Nurses Week in May 2020, by announcing that the school would graduate nurses early to help with the pandemic, generated a robust virtual fundraising response. Similarly, the College of Medicine had success highlighting the research it was doing on tuberculosis, research that had applications to COVID. The School of Public Health did four virtual events.

Slater added, “All the traditional banquets went virtual. We gave restaurant gift certificates so people could get dinner and enjoy it during the presentations. We had great, positive feedback on these, and the results were successful financially, as well. We kept our previous donors and added new ones. We will definitely be doing more of this.”

Rob Henry, VP of development, culture and talent at CASE, believes working in the virtual space helped the advancement profession. “It forced an industry that is ‘people-centric’ to see that engagement could occur on a virtual platform,” Henry said. “Major gifts officers could close gifts virtually. Alumni offices could have amazing engagement opportunities virtually.”

Henry added that for the current generation of new alums, this is their normal—virtual learning has already changed alumni relations programs. And it is also more budget-friendly.

The tough question, Henry said, is about going forward. “Will we embrace what we learned over the last 18 months, or convert back?” he asked. “If we do, it would be a sad loss. The virtual space allowed us to connect with non-traditional and diverse individuals within our communities. Hopefully, we will embrace a hybrid model in the future.”

Contentious conversations

We often hear about impassioned campus conversations inspired by ongoing issues of the day, including campus freedom of speech, carbon-footprint and climate initiatives, and the entire spectrum of questions around social justice and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. The effect of these hot-button issues on the giving conversation seems to be more subtle and nuanced. For example, while Slater doesn’t bring up student debt specifically, she does point out to potential donors that tuition is $30,000, because she knows that the desire to help students is of prime importance to many donors.

Belmont’s successful “We Believe” fundraising campaign had five established priorities: scholarships, faculty support, mission, athletics and annual giving. Moulds said these issues reflected their importance to donors, and that the vast majority of gift conversations were about endowed scholarships. He indicated that while there is absolute awareness about the need to provide access, which is integrated into the mission and scholarship priorities of the campaign, that awareness didn’t change the gift conversations.

Looking at the field through a wide lens, CASE’s Henry said, “The killing of George Floyd and other horrifying murders have had lasting impact, unveiling systemic issues and social justice issues that are now driving the priorities and conversations from healthcare to voting rights. Most organizations are focused now on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts. In the advancement space, professionals are asking the question, ‘How do we unlearn our behaviors that limit DEIB?’ While that conversation occurs, we also ask, what does freedom of speech, and the critical need for both sides to hear each other and have empathy for one another, look like now?” Institutions, he said, are sensitive to all of this, and students are demanding that they be.

Future prospects

Looking back, Slater of Texas A&M’s Health Science Center said, “The first six months of 2021 were more difficult because the pipeline that took us through 2020 was depleted and foundations seemed to be on hold. But looking ahead, public health is in the spotlight.”

Now, she said, the Health Science Center has a strong pipeline, a well-defined strategy and the research it didn’t have before. It is continuing its new virtual strategy, making monthly presentations on public health topics as an awareness-building tactic and working on storytelling efforts. The goal is to raise $5 to $6 million to establish a new chair in epidemiology.

For Slater, funds for student scholarships remain the easiest—and strongest—case to make. “When we needed 58 scholarships, we made optimal use of an Aggie family foundation endowment that provides matching funds. They were all matched in 30 days, which was outstanding. Matching is always a great motivator,” she said.

Moulds, too, said there were tense, stressful times when COVID intruded on the final year of Belmont’s We Believe campaign. “We were not certain we were going to meet our goal, as giving activity decreased in 2020. But what happened was, major gifts and planned gifts increased.” Meanwhile, he said, the school’s priority areas are shifting. Rather than endowment-building, Belmont is seeking scholarships and immediately expendable dollars that can impact students quickly.

“What we found,” Moulds said, “is that philanthropic people are philanthropic despite circumstances. They still want to make an impact while dealing with their own situation. They felt the need to step up in challenging times. Their personal examinations prompted them to look at their estates, and as a result, planned giving increased.”

This jives with findings from CASE. According to Kaplan, “COVID activated people who want to help in a crisis.” From her perspective, because the stock market was relatively stable during this time, and because these types of gifts tend to come from wealth rather than current earnings, donors felt comfortable continuing to give, and continuing to make plans to give.

Meanwhile, CASE’s Rob Henry sees three trends. The first is that organizations and institutions are still embarking on large campaigns, with many conducting the largest campaigns in their histories. A second trend is that campaigns are becoming more inclusive. That includes engaging diverse constituencies and their communities while embracing the power of their global reach. During the pandemic, shifting advancement efforts to virtual platforms allowed institutions to engage their constituencies more broadly than ever before. As for the third, he said, “A trend that won’t change is that a priority for donors is to help students.”