How higher ed is raising funds to help students during COVID-19

College advancement officials are seeking donations for student emergency funds through online fundraising and phonathons
By: | April 6, 2020
To help students during the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities are canceling giving days and changing their donor stewardship strategies by raising student emergency funds through online fundraising and other online giving initiatives. gettyimages.com: Westend61

Colleges and universities are creating emergency funds to help students who are struggling financially as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, a development advisory group of higher ed advancement professionals from nearly 10 institutions reconvened to discuss their online giving best practices as they shift from having in-person donor meetings and sending direct mailers to adopting online fundraising initiatives.

Many schools such as the California Institute of Technology have canceled their scheduled giving days to raise funds from alumni by communicating how their contributions can help current students who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

At Northeastern University in Boston, the advancement office worked with student support services to create the We Care Fund to help with basic necessities such as paying for rent and gas. Meanwhile, officials at Fort Lewis College in Colorado created the Skyhawk Emergency Fund to provide students with laptops and other equipment due to concerns that they didn’t have internet access at home.

Higher ed promoting student emergency funds

CASE has compiled a list of colleges and universities that have been promoting student emergency funds:

For more information, view the CASE emergency aid fund subject guide.

“Many schools are worried that students don’t have enough money for tuition in the fall either because they or their parents are unemployed and can’t find a job,” says Senior Vice President of Development Linda Durant at the Council for Advancement and Support Education who attended the development advisory group. “Institutions are thinking about how they can raise enough funds to pay that tuition bill.”

Stewardship through phonathons

While many institutions have switched to online giving, others are pursuing stewardship through phonathons to raise gifts for their student emergency funds.

“Advancement officers are trying to schedule calls for presidents and senior leaders to thank donors and share how their support will help students during this important time,” says Durant. “One of the most important first steps is therefore to work with colleagues in student affairs or student services to find out what the needs of your students are.”

These offices can also locate and contact students to help with donor stewardship by calling donors and alumni themselves to thank them for their gifts.

“It’s important to not only communicate these kinds of stories to donors and alumni but to keep that relationship with them alive,” she says.

Online giving campaign raising funds

Last week, Northwest Florida State College started an online giving campaign for students affected by the coronavirus. Alumni are encouraged to donate to a preexisting student emergency fund that was established in 2018. Like before, students are referred by staff and faculty to apply for financial support via the online platform and can receive a maximum of $1,000. “We do have the ability to raise that limit higher in extenuating circumstances,” says Cristie Kedroski, senior vice president. “So far, the highest amount a student has needed to help them persist and continue their education here since the coronavirus started was $700 dollars.”


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Currently, 15 donors have donated $4,525 since the online fundraising campaign launched a week ago with a $5,000 check from a local business on the way.

To create this online giving initiative, the college first suspended the silent phase of a major gifts campaign. Next, the college communicated the shift via social media and sent a recorded message from the college president to a VIP list via email. “Our leadership team felt that student need would grow so we changed our messaging to say that we would be temporarily focusing on raising money for our student emergency funds.”

She adds, “It’s important for colleges to stay focused on the mission at hand, which is serving students. When there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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