Five Lessons Development Offices Have Learned From COVID-19

Five Lessons Development Offices Have Learned From COVID-19
Five Lessons Development Offices Have Learned From COVID-19


June 14, 2020

In past articles and webinars, ISM has recommended that development professionals use this time to:

  • examine your Case for Giving;
  • identify and evaluate their donors’ capacity, inclinations, and interests when giving to the school;
  • engage donors in the school’s virtual response to the pandemic;
  • solicit when appropriate; and
  • recognize and steward donors’ previous giving by showing the school’s gratitude and demonstrating the value of their gifts.

At the same time, we have urged Development Offices to reinvent their annual fund calendars and reimagine events to host when school reopens.

As a result of these intense three months, five important lessons have emerged that can guide the future of your program.

1. Ask why

The excuse that “we’ve always done it that way” can no longer be a justification for continuing events and strategies that have traditionally been part of your calendar. To be successful in a virtual environment, events and programs must have an established purpose that is mission-centric and relevant for the intended audience. If the answer to the question “Why are we having this event?” cannot be answered convincingly, then the activity can be easily discarded.

2. Be open

The problems from the COVID-19 crisis have few precedents and, therefore, few dependable solutions. Finding the most effective approaches to fundraising can be challenging at best. We recommend being open to all possibilities, trying as many proposed solutions as your capacity allows, and not being afraid of failure. Much of what will be tried over the next few months will have limited success. But, at the same time, this gives you invaluable information when planning for the future.


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3. Pay attention

Now, more than ever, is when you must plan your individual and general communications with your donors and prospects with care and sensitivity. Because the situation continues to evolve, regularly evaluate your donor communication plans to ensure that they are relevant and responsive. Guard against wording or timing that would appear to be insensitive to your community. Your ability to listen determines your ability to maintain relationships over the long term.

4. Everyone is on the team

It is important to break down the “silos” in your school and use the knowledge and talent of everyone in the school community. Your marketing communications team is especially important as partners in your work with your donors. Teachers can provide video testimonials and demonstrate their online teaching strategies. Students can display their work or speak to how they find solutions to questions posed in class. Your Athletic Director can introduce varsity players in a Zoom meeting; the art teacher can share student work. With everyone on the team, the ideas for their participation are endless.

5. We will never be the same again

The measures taken to adjust to the crisis are not temporary. Many will become a permanent part of your approach to donor relations and fundraising. For example, it’s hard to imagine that online connections used now will return to only campus-only events; that alumni reunions won’t involve a virtual component; and that donor engagement will preclude the use of Zoom meetings. Your planning must focus on long-term changes instead of short-term, stopgap actions.

The best news is this—because of the lessons learned over the past few months, your increasingly personal and donor-centered development programs will help assure a secure and exciting future for your school.


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