Planning the Future with Unknowns

While strategic initiatives fundraisers must be adept at embracing ambiguity in the best of times, 2020 pushed limits at unprecedented levels. The community came together to collectively face the questions of:

  • What will the future look like for these complex initiatives during a time of intense need for core priorities like student financial aid and faculty support?

  • How do we continue advocating for strategic initiatives (including gift stewardship), big ideas, and organizational foci in times of real financial challenges for our institutions?

Key takeaways include:

  • Institutions are planning around COVID-19-related financial hardships, as well as forecast revenue losses from their ability to reopen in-person during the 2020-2021 academic year. In some cases, these budget shortfalls are in the $100M-300M range.

  • There is much uncertainty about the financial realities for development units including the future size and shape of staffing as institutional priorities are realigned.

  • At the same time, some universities have had banner fundraising years, despite market volatility in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Only a return to normal pre-Covid instruction, research, and campus life will ultimately identify which revenue streams return to their previous levels. Meanwhile, several institutions are already experiencing furloughs due to reduced budgets.

  • Covid and the broad reconsideration of social justice and inclusion have institutions rebalancing established long-range strategic plans versus current needs, and/or signaling plans to do so as soon as the urgency of starting the new academic year passes. The changing nature of regulations for international students and donors is another major area of uncertainty.

  • Colleagues across institutions cited many great themes and areas of need —such as diversity & inclusion, economic security, population health, climate change, and more—which all need cross-campus, collaborative strategic thinking.

  • Several institutions reported challenges in stewarding gifts received just before the pandemic. For example, some universities have not been able to announce transformative gifts to areas that may seem out of touch with the realities of the present, while progress on others has languished. Some donors are preferring to keep the spotlight of their giving away from them, in response to keeping focus on the institution’s COVID-19 response.

  • With regard to sustaining advocacy for strategic initiatives, SI leaders and institute directors are finding success through internal impact reporting to institutional unit-based leadership colleagues, highlighting accomplishments, and emphasizing the benefits which have accrued to the membership of those units.

  • Virtual connection with donors has been quite successful, creating opportunities for sustained visibility for initiatives. Digital platforms have allowed for hundreds or thousands to participate in events, and It is now easier than ever to bring together 3 or 4 major philanthropists with similar interests to a virtual room with university leadership.

  • Universities' COVID-19 response efforts have allowed some schools to establish connections with philanthropists for the first time. In some of these cases, stewardship of these donors' inaugural support will allow universities to showcase other wonderful university priorities over time as the new relationship is built and sustained. In this way, COVID has brought new opportunity.


Moderated by: Kara Flyg (MIT) and Matt Hutter (Duke)

July 23, 2020