Alumni and Donor Relations in the Age of Zoom

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When the nation first went into quarantine in March, many colleges and universities were forced to scrap their upcoming alumni and donor engagement initiatives and start over virtually.  

But, in the wake of the pandemic and a profusion of online events, what have we learned about virtual engagement, especially when it comes to best practices, strategy, and metrics?

From May-June 2020, CASE conducted an Alumni Innovations survey on how institutions have adapted their alumni and volunteer engagement efforts and tactics that have proven effective in the age of COVID-19. 448 individuals responded to the survey, representing 30 countries (see participant breakdown below). In addition, 53% of respondents identified as the senior most alumni relations or advancement professional at their institution. Here is a breakdown of the survey participants:

The results of the survey raised a number of questions, including: 

  • How are colleges and universities developing virtual engagement initiatives and programs that are sustainable, meaningful, and impactful for alumni, volunteers, and donors?
  • How can institutions design virtual engagement strategies that serve their various constituents and inspire them to give time, talent, and treasure?
  • How are institutions measuring the success of online events and developing relevant benchmarks of virtual engagement? 

In late September, CASE and its educational partner ALUMinate conducted a webinar to help address these questions (watch the full, free webinar here). The webinar was facilitated by David Bass, Senior Director of Research at CASE and Robert Fealy, President & Co-Founder of ALUMinate. Practitioner panelists included Terry Callaghan, Associate Vice President, Strategic Advancement Solutions at Rutgers University Foundation; Shawn Dailey, Associate Vice President of Alumni and Parent Engagement and Annual Giving at Kenyon College; and Jason Penry, Assistant Vice President for Operations at the Texas A&M Foundation. 

These are the takeaways from their discussion. (Some responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The Survey: Engaging Alumni, Volunteers, and Donors, Both New and Old

Based on the results of the May-June 2020 Alumni Innovations survey, in general, institutions reported high success with their initial virtual engagement efforts with alumni, donors, and volunteers. In addition, 60% of respondents believe they’ve had success engaging previously unengaged alumni, which raises the question: how are institutions going to track newly engaged alumni and sustain and deepen those relationships going forward?

When it comes to engaging new volunteers, the qualitative responses to the survey showed over and over that the COVID-19 crisis changed the rules of engagement, making digital engagement more acceptable and creating our new normal. As David Bass explained, “Everyone is now a square on a [Zoom] screen.” The quarantine has given practitioners permission to engage volunteers in new ways, including:

  • Regular updates from institution leadership 
  • Joint online meetings of volunteer boards/committees & more frequent meetings
  • Wellness check-ins and similar stewardship
  • Happy hours with staff and other volunteers
  • Trainings in use of online tools to help them in their volunteer roles

Another trend in the qualitative responses showed that institutions were leveraging alumni talent, including:

  • “Deeply involving them in our sense of the unknown”—engaging them as partners in planning, strategy, and communications
  • Engaging chapter/council volunteers to organize regional events
  • Creating new volunteer roles to plan large virtual events
  • Utilizing alumni in online programs, in classes, and in social media

Regarding fundraising, the survey showed that: 

  • 31% of respondents’ institutions decreased the frequency of direct mail/email appeals and a similar percentage cancelled or deferred phonathons
  • 11% have increased direct mail/email solicitations
  • 12% cancelled online solicitations
  • Half changed the focus of fundraising appeals to focus on raising student emergency funds or other student assistance
  • Many institutions have witnessed the loyalty and commitment of their major donors

In the wake of COVID-19, the survey showed that a large number of virtual initiatives to engage volunteers had to do with supporting students and new alumni. Institutions creating ways for alumni to engage with students and recent graduates is going to be critical to help build affinity with this cohort of graduates who face a rocky end to their college experience and an uncertain job market.

Want to contribute to future survey research like this? The CASE Global Alumni Engagement Metrics Survey is open until December 31st, 2020! The AEM survey provides participating institutions with a framework to track and benchmark engagement year-over-year and in relation to peers. To take part, visit us online or email

Transitioning In-person to Virtual Events

The COVID-19 pandemic propelled most institutions into the future when it comes to virtually engaging alumni, volunteers, and donors. We asked respondents if they had “met with unexpected success in transitioning planned in-person events to virtual/online events?”  (Success might be defined by much higher than anticipated numbers of participants, higher than anticipated rates of participation by previously unengaged alumni, or other desired outcomes. Institutions seem to be having mixed success with this.) The survey showed that many schools are still in process of transitioning their major events from in-person to virtual, which raises questions of scale and feasibility: how do you turn a popular gala or tailgating event into a successful Zoom meeting? 

We’ve found that institutions are seeing more success with purpose-built events than the redesign of established in-person events (traditionally in-person events that have transitioned online). On the flip side, virtual events draw both greater numbers of participants and more diverse participation, especially geographically distant alumni. 81% of respondents’ institutions have conducted virtual events they believe will be carried over in the future. But survey respondents expressed concern that participation levels at these successful virtual events will drop off once alumni relations programs no longer have such a captive, quarantined audience. 

When it comes to communication, the survey showed that outreach during COVID-19 is generally more regular, informal, and friendly. Institutions are centering content that is both timely and relevant, such as updates from campus leaders, which many schools have expanded to reach much larger audiences. The survey also showed that institutions are hosting many webinars that showcase the expertise of faculty and alumni. One area of concern arose in the survey findings when it came to virtual events and communication; 80% of respondents don’t have a good system to track participation in online communication and other online events. For example, are schools logging chats and questions that arise during a Zoom meeting or webinar? If so, where are they storing that data? What should be done with it? 

How did your school react to COVID-19? How has your thinking about the virus evolved? 

After David Bass reviewed the survey findings, a panel of alumni relations and advancement practitioners discussed how their institutions’ discussions about and reactions to COVID-19 have shifted over the past seven months. 

Terry Callaghan with Rutgers University explained that the university foundation had to pivot quickly. Starting in early March, they cancelled all events three weeks out, transitioned many to virtual, and had about 250 people working from home doing gift processing, solicitation, etc. Regarding virtual engagement, the Rutgers University Foundation has seen success; the average number of both virtual event attendees and new virtual attendees doubled between 2019 and 2020. Terry connected this success to the foundations’ wide variety of events and how they bring in notable speakers, often alumni. Regarding how the Foundation is making use of virtual engagement data, development officers are notified via push notifications and follow up every time one of their prospects attends one of the university’s virtual events or if a prospect attends an event for the first time. 

Shawn Dailey explained that his advancement department canceled everything and started over. Fortunately, because the college is located in rural Ohio, virtual visits were a part of their fundraising strategy prior to COVID-19. At Kenyon, they’re focused on figuring out what types of programming alumni will find valuable. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, alumni wanted to know what the college is doing and what it’s going to do. So, one of the first events Kenyon held was a town-hall style meeting with the college president. As Shawn explained, “This was very well attended but largely by people already close to the college. We’re now pivoting to more affinity-based programming, [which] are drawing in new people.”

At the Texas A&M University Foundation, their focus is on major gift fundraising. Jason Penry said, “Much of our engagement [with prospects and donors] has been done face-to-face. So our focus has been, what does it look like to transition out of the pandemic? What are our strategies to engage older alumni and major gift donors? How do we continue pipeline building? How do we keep prospects warm until they reach that stage?”

How is your institution designing virtual engagement strategies?  

Shawn Dailey: “We’ve applied our existing strategy over top of virtual events. Data-driven approaches are very important to me. We know there is a correlation between [a constituent] engaging with the college and making a gift, as well as a correlation between multiple points of engagement and an increased size of the gift. Our strategy is to broaden engagement between alumni and parents, identify prospects, and deepen engagement to feed our pipelines. I think of everything we do with the college on the engagement side as leading to the fundraising side. Virtual events will play a role in our next campaign strategy.” 

Shawn went on to explain that, though their virtual events may be easier for certain populations of people to attend, like professionals who are very busy, “virtual events may not have the same engagement value as in-person events. So we’re eager to resume campus and regional events.” Shawn also shared a successful virtual engagement initiative: “Our constituents are lifelong learners. [Our institution] reallocated honorariums for professors to deliver online content in the form of a ‘Best Of’ series. This opened a floodgate of academic content.” 

Terry Callaghan: “[Rutgers] is moving to broader virtual engagement. We’re engaging more alumni and constituents who couldn’t attend events before because of their location or busy schedules. We’ve engaged more alumni speakers, so this brings in more alumni and more topics. We’re using a virtual event platform for a first major campaign event in spring 2021. This will be fully produced and have different rooms.” Rutgers’s new university president is known for his social justice work. He will be framing many of the big ideas for the campaign during its silent phase. Regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, Terry said, “COVID-19 has accelerated where we are all headed. One of our Foundation AVPs is looking at diversity and inclusion in our alumni activities and in prospecting to address questions such as: do we have any unintended bias? Are we equally engaging everyone? Are we meeting the needs of those populations?” 

Jason Penry: “Our best business when it comes to fundraising is done face-to-face. For [the Foundation’s] strategy moving forward, we’ve found that some donors of a certain age are not as comfortable with technology, so there is a hunger for human relationships. Many of our donors haven’t gotten out of a five mile radius in the past six months and they want visits with people they know and trust. We’ve tried to create ‘safe places,’ for example, on-campus, where they can see students moving from class to class with their face masks. Also, safe places in their homes if they give us permission to visit. We found that that really helps advance the conversation. The human relation element for a certain segment of our former students in the state of Texas has really been effective for us.” 

How does your institution score and evaluate virtual engagement?

Shawn Dailey: “Our engagement research shows that the longer someone engages with [Kenyon College], the more likely they are to make a gift. This ranges from a few seconds they might have spent watching a story on social media, to a high level volunteer spending 40+ hours per year engaging with the college. Events online tend to be shorter and attendees don’t connect with each other in the same way. It is a bit harder to find prospects during virtual events because you don’t have those networking conversations. In terms of strategy, in our interim campaign period we’re going to focus on older alumni because that is where engagement really translates to participation. Young alumni are very engaged but this doesn’t translate to giving in the same way.”

When asked about how his institution is starting to score virtual engagement, Shawn explained “We’re counting virtual events the same way as if [the constituent] attended an in-person event. We have two main goals: to broaden and to deepen engagement. For broadening engagement, we want to get more people engaged at any level. When it comes to deepening engagement, I’m not doing it with a score, but trying to engage prospects in a way that will lead to a gift to Kenyon College. An engagement score doesn’t matter so much to me right now; we have a very personal strategy for individual donors, not a metrics-based strategy.”

In his final thoughts, Shawn shared, “I would encourage alumni relations professionals to explore a wide variety of virtual programming, including identity and affinity based events, to discover new audiences. And I would note that it may be better to imagine new events in a virtual world than to try to translate existing events to virtual events.”  

Jason Penry: “In terms of metrics, our organization is focused on major gifts, so we’ve really gone back to the fundamentals. [In advancement], the most simple metrics you can have are meaningful visits and proposals presented. We always say, ‘Control the controllables.’ When it comes to face-to-face vs. virtual visits, there is a difference.” 

Terry Callaghan: “We hope to reach all 500,000 of our alumni. We can readily access about half of those who open our emails on a regular basis. The metrics we’re measuring are to increase engagement through email, but also drive volunteerism, find speakers, build committees, etc. Our focus right now is generating more first time engagement while keeping the current alumni engaged. When you use a built-out virtual event platform, you can collect a lot of data on the attendees; there is often an artificial intelligence component. In terms of doing this for a campaign event, you could see where individuals are visiting and with whom they’re speaking and use that to guide follow-up activity. While you lose the face-to-face information, you gain this kind of knowledge you can use for follow-up [with constituents].”

Closing Thoughts: Engagement Scoring in the New Virtual World

As Robert Fealy, President of ALUMinate, noted: “Many colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations use engagement and affinity scoring to inform their advancement activities. Advancement practitioners might rank and catalog all interactions a donor or prospect has had with the institution, assigning weights to various activities depending on their perceived ‘impact’ on an individual’s philanthropic mindset.”

In hindsight, it was relatively easy to compare the value of a prospect having a personal visit with a college president against a prospect attending a sports event or commenting on one of the institution’s social media posts. 

Now that nearly every interaction with donors and prospects is virtual, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, how can the impact of these interactions be measured? 

First, we should acknowledge that the world is a different place than it was ten months ago. With 13 million unemployed workers in the United States (including, undoubtedly, past donors), many nonprofits face severe financial distress. In addition, the higher-ed business model is under even greater scrutiny; institutions face social and political unrest, demands for greater DEI, challenges from remote work, and suspension of face-to-face relationship building. 

In these troubled times, what do donors and potential supporters want and need from these institutions? 

Perhaps one way to look at virtual event engagement in the context of advancement is as something akin to a sales lead in the business sector, especially for those constituents who have not had an active relationship with the institution or are participating for the first time. In this sense, advancement practitioners following up expeditiously on “sales leads” either through direct outreach or by offering additional engagement opportunities is key, especially for those constituents who show significant financial capacity and inclination. 

The value of the engagement also depends on the nature of the virtual event or initiative. Is the event conceived with a “shotgun approach” in mind, made available to everyone in the advancement database (subject to system capacity limits, of course)? Or, is the event or initiative targeted at specific donors or prospects? In other words, are the engagement activities consistent with the broader strategy, driven by a thoughtful purpose that defines their value? 

Therefore, has your team segmented your constituents, set participation expectations, and determined how much of your precious resources are to be allocated to each segment? For example, sorting constituents into different pools like  “maintain connections,” “pipeline of next-generation major gift prospects,” and “prospects in advancement officer portfolios.” 

A virtual wine tasting open to any constituent is obviously of lesser value (from a fundraising impact standpoint) than an invitation-only presidential briefing to a small group of high-net-worth prospects, if you can get them to attend. The point is to design virtual events and initiatives with the impact value thoughtfully assigned before the event. 

While quality is important, don’t ignore quantity, especially if the constituents’ interactions are across multiple channels like Zoom and social media. This sort of engagement may also signal that there are opportunities for the institution or organization to help the constituent with things like career counseling (due to job loss) or plain loneliness from being sequestered. Or this engagement may just suggest renewed interest in reconnecting with old friends or the institution. 

We may return to “normalcy” soon, but virtual events are likely here to stay. Our advice? Develop a strategy and don’t just do things to do them. Target and value your virtual engagement just as you would in-person events, adjusting as appropriate. We are all in the learning stage, but let’s learn with purpose.

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