Advancement in a pandemic: How one college made it happen

When concerns over fundraising arose, Muhlenberg College stepped up with innovative solutions and a strong focus on relationship building to enjoy record returns.
By: | April 21, 2021
Rebekkah Brown, Vice President for Advancement, says of reaching out to potential donors during the pandemic, 'The first thing our gift officers and our frontline fundraisers started doing were care calls. Not even talking about giving, not focused on the dollars or the donations, but were they doing all right?' (Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College)

A little more than a year ago, Muhlenberg College’s fundraising team was revving along, well on track to hit its goals.

Then the news of a spreading coronavirus broke, and it didn’t take long for worry to set in. Rebekkah Brown, the college’s Vice President for Advancement, crunched the numbers and recognized that the potential for donors to back away because of the impacts of the global pandemic could result in a $500,000 shortfall to Muhlenberg’s annual fund.

She brought the data to the attention of the board.

“The numbers across different fundraising priorities were all looking good,” she said. “But the pandemic gave us pause. What is going to happen for this last quarter? What could we expect? What is really at risk here?”

Those were popular questions across higher education in 2020. But it was Muhlenberg’s reaction then, and in this moment, that has helped negate a “serious situation”.  The team’s outreach efforts, its patience and its creative work behind the scenes sparked a remarkable turnaround.

The private liberal arts college in Allentown Pa., managed to set a record for unrestricted fundraising in FY20 and is 20% ahead of those numbers in FY21.

Three important things happened to take those worries away, including two transformational donations – a seven-figure gift from Dr. Judith McDonald Burkholder and Thomas Burkholder announced last October and another that was anonymous.

The others were key strategies – one around emergency funds called the Muhlenberg Special, an online telethon run on Giving Tuesday, and its Muhlenberg Extended Learning (MXL) program, which brought in nearly 200 students, new and returning, for a free course during the summer.

We got to work on fundraising [for MXL] and called a couple of our top donors and in less than 10 days had the $100,000 in hand to be able to launch this new program,” Brown says. “It really has had an impact, both on the retention and the recruitment front.”

To get an inside look at how Muhlenberg’s team pivoted so well during the pandemic, University Business chatted with Brown on those initiatives, goal-setting and a look at the future in advancement:

When the pandemic hit, how certain were you of the numbers you were projecting? How did you identify those shortfalls?

A lot of it was looking at donors from the previous year, the size of some of those gifts and the industries that people were in. Much of it was around the volatility of the market and how it would affect the higher end donor, those giving, $10,000, $15000, $25,000 a year to the annual fund, and what potential dollars we could be losing. A fair amount comes from smaller dollar amounts, donors who are giving $500. Might donors turn their attention to places that they thought needed the funding immediately, like research organizations? Or with the amount of job loss, would they turn to charities, local food pantries or other places that might need resources?

What were some of the initial strategies your team employed to try to offset the problem?

So much of advancement work is around building relationships. The first thing our gift officers and our frontline fundraisers started doing were care calls. Not even talking about giving, not focused on the dollars or the donations, but were they doing all right? We checked in on everyone and spent time talking about the pandemic. We very intentionally did not have gift conversations. Looking back on it, I imagine that probably had a very positive impact on how they were continuing their relationship with Muhlenberg. The pandemic has shifted time and priorities. We were able to connect with more people than we otherwise would have, who had a little bit more time in their schedule. We started to see [the connections] accelerate, and that has continued during the pandemic.

What do you think sparked the turnaround in fundraising?

I sit on the President’s senior staff, so we’re certainly having a lot of high-level conversations about what’s happening with the college, what the needs are, what the finances are looking like. Two things started some of this momentum. One was around emergency grant funds to students, where donors who maybe didn’t think higher ed was as in need of their philanthropy. That started to get a lot of emphasis. We developed a telethon-type live virtual event with students and primarily alumni performances (the Muhlenberg Special) focused on raising money specifically for the emergency grant fund. The other program was offering tuition credit for courses that students could take over the summer (MXL program).

Talk about the two major donations that came in that really highlighted the wave of contributions to Muhlenberg.

They were both exceptional gifts. In both cases, the donor chose to leave something out. In one case, they’re anonymous. The Burkholders have not publicized the amount of the gift, but I can say that it’s a seven-figure gift to the college. They were continually pleased with how the college was handling the [pandemic] situation. We had also been in conversations with the anonymous donor about two of the capital projects we were planning. The donor was inspired and wanted to make them a reality. For the advancement department, these are the situations that are ideal.

For the broader campus community and the alumni community, to be in the situation that the world is in right now, to have good news to share about the generosity of our community and how people are there for each other, is incredible. These came at a time that lifted up the entire community and gave people the strength and energy to keep moving forward.

How difficult is it to campaign for gifts during a pandemic?

Most people going into the pandemic that work in advancement would have never suggested soliciting a multimillion-dollar gift over the phone or in a Zoom conversation. Those would typically be in-person conversations over dinner or in a meeting. I don’t think we’ll move away from in-person conversations entirely. I think they are so valuable. You can just read a situation and a conversation in a different way when you’re face to face. But it has transformed the cultivation cycle and how we engage with the donor to bring them closer to the college. Two years ago, I don’t think I could have ever said I would be having seven-figure-gifts conversations over the phone or in a virtual format, but I think there is a possibility for that going forward.

Part of it goes back to having those deep relationships established already. We’re finding donors who had a hard time connecting before that we were looking to engage deeper and support the college in a more significant way. Maybe they’re in California. We’re in Pennsylvania. Normally, that would have required a trip up to California and scheduling time. There’s an expense piece for the college, to at least start those discovery conversations in early engagement over Zoom or over the phone. I think it’s given us a different way to look at how we’ll approach this work going forward.

What are your plans for the next six months or so?

We’re thinking about our return to in-person gatherings and events for the fall. The thing that will be different is how many people are interested in virtual components. Last year, for our alumni weekend, we were entirely virtual. We had people attending and joining for virtual events that would have never joined if the event were primarily in person. There were people celebrating their 50th reunion who really hadn’t connected to the college very much in 50 years but were able to log in to a Zoom call. That made us realize that the new normal is going to look different, and it’s going to be hybrid. We have to find more ways to include what we’ve learned about virtual engagement over the past year, even in our in-person events.

And thinking about affinities to Muhlenberg in a different way and how we engage people around topics. I think historically, class year and region are major ways that alumni are engaged. But thinking about different affinities around athletics, Greek organizations, academic majors, and how we can enhance and do even more on that front.

What are some of the lessons learned over the past year that can be helpful to your team and others across higher ed?

Donors are giving because of their relationship to the college, to the people they’re working with, to their faculty, to their classmates, and staying very focused on that piece. It’s very easy, especially in the worriedness about where those dollars are going to come from the start to make the work transactional. While that might work in a few cases, the long term is about that relationship building.

Also, imagining things differently, the continuous innovation mentality. The pandemic forced us to innovate in new and different ways. We can’t lose that. With staff, how do we keep engaging with each other? How do we keep those connections to make sure we all are marching in the same direction? Making sure that focus on the team doesn’t get lost in the many other things that are going on. And being ready for opportunities that might present themselves and always looking for what those connections might be.