Higher ed fundraising poised to drop to possible historic lows, survey says

Colleges and universities are advised to reengage with top donors for additional support and embrace digital engagement innovations
By: | June 12, 2020
College fundraising is poised to plummet, which will require university advancement officials to adopt new university fundraising strategies, such as finding innovative ways to improve alumni engagement digitally.Photo by fotosipsak/Getty Images

University and college fundraising could drop dramatically to or below levels experienced during the Great Recession, as a result of complications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 40% of institutions are projecting declines of at least 10% for fiscal year 2020 with over one in five schools expecting fundraising revenue to drop by a minimum of 20% percent, according to a recent survey of 110 advancement leaders by EAB, a best practices firm for the education industry.

The survey also projects that nearly 45% of institutions anticipate double-digit declines in 2021 while a growing percentage of schools expect a decline of at least 30% compared to 2019 totals.


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“Colleges and universities need to work closely with their best donors to see if they can expand their support and generosity,” says Jeff Martin, senior director with EAB’s Advancement Forum. “Donors have been responding positively to these requests and many are saying that these messages have really resonated with them.”

Likewise, university advancement leaders should not use this time to address the continual decline of alumni participation since the early 1990s, seeing as advancement offices will mostly be operating on smaller budgets with possibly fewer staff members. “Higher ed should not focus on small donors. The focus should be on revenue that comes from the top of the fundraising pyramid since that will have the greatest return on investment in the shortest amount of time,” says Martin. “ROIs will be critical in the years to come as chief advancement officials make some difficult decisions on how to prioritize investment strategies in the coming years.”

Donor and alumni engagement during travel restrictions and closures

EAB recommends that university advancement teams engage as many future donors as possible remotely since travel restrictions will most likely still be in effect. “It’s a hard ask to make in this time to open the line of philanthropy if that conversation is not already open, but fundraising is a numbers game, and even if the success rate of those asks have gone down, remote fundraising is in a position to drastically expand their outreach to meet with donors,” says Martin.

Rather than just scheduling meetings on video-conferencing platforms, college fundraising officials should find innovations in digital engagement “I have heard consistently that, whereas alumni engagement has been a perennial headache for years if not decades, schools have been able to increase the number of engaged alumni through these channels two fold, even three fold.”

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