Higher Ed Fundraising in Times of Division and Upheaval: 3 Insights from the ABA Development Conference

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Esther Choy giving the keynote presentation on storytelling and fundraising. © ALUMinate US
How do we demonstrate the authentic value of philanthropy during the uncertain temper of our times?

Earlier this month, ALUMinate took part in the American Bar Association (ABA) Law School Development Conference in Chicago, which was attended by advancement staff and law school deans from major institutions across the country. Both ALUMinate co-founders spoke at the conference—Esther Choy gave an interactive keynote presentation on the power of story in fundraising and Bob Fealy spoke on how the various parts of a major university foundation interact to optimize the fundraising process.

A question that popped up in many of the sessions we attended and conversations we took part in was, how do we fundraise successfully during these heated and divided political times?

Last year, after the inauguration, nearly half of the foundations surveyed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy said that they expected their work to get harder during the Trump presidency. How is the current administration, major movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and pressing issues like immigration and climate change shaping how and why people give to institutions of higher education? How do we demonstrate the authentic value of philanthropy during the uncertain temper of our times?

First, we wanted to know what was on fundraisers’ minds and the minds of their alumni—the real issues and challenges they’re facing. So we polled the conference attendees on two main questions (over 72% of the attendees responded to each question!):

  • -What causes are resonating most with your alum? (i.e., social justice, immigration, healthcare access, etc.)

  • -What are the most pressing challenges you are facing in fundraising?

At ALUMinate, we aim for all our services and insights to be evidence-based. So we dug into this poll data and other information gleaned during the ABA conference to bring you three key insights for how to fundraise successfully in higher education during politically divided times.

Insight 1: New donors are ready to collaborate and be engaged but want transparency

Part of the response to recent political changes in the U.S. has been an increase in certain types of giving. According to Giving USA, total giving, “spurred largely by giving from individuals,” rose nearly 4 percent in 2016. In addition, according to “The Philanthropy Outlook 2017 & 2018” report by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, “Charitable giving in the U.S. is predicted to grow by […] 3.8 percent in 2018.”

Major shifts are occurring in who gets a platform and whose perspectives are prioritized; this change is both overdue and energizing. At the ABA conference, these were the most common responses to our first poll question, “What causes are resonating most with your alum?”

  • -Social justice

  • -Immigration

  • -Access to justice*

  • -Access to education

  • -Human rights

*This result seems particularly reflective of the aggregate—development professionals who work with law school alumni.

New prospect groups are emerging and collaborating. As David Callahan points out in his January 2018 Inside Philanthropy article, “Trump administration policies have simultaneously put many constituencies on the defensive—women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people. But one upside of this broad assault is that it’s created a powerful imperative for these groups to forge stronger alliances and for funders to move beyond silo-ized grantmaking. It’s taken a crisis, it turns out, to transform intersectionality from a buzzword into an operating strategy.” In our current climate, it is important to identify influencers—not just alumni who can engage with the institution in major ways but those who can lead you to their peers, other alumni and supporters, who want to engage with the institution.

Even if the donor landscape is changing, their concerns about ROI and “What is in it for me?” have not gone away (and won’t). With these new aggregates of engaged prospects, an important challenge for your team is how to manage donor expectations and respond to their priorities. One way to handle this is to make sure your whole team is clear on what the institution’s needs are, why they’re important, and how to convey that importance to new potential donors. Also, donors (especially younger donors) value transparency, and appreciate if you’re honest about the institution’s achievements and what you’re still working on improving.

ABA Development Conference session © ALUMinate US
ABA Development Conference session © ALUMinate US

Insight 2: Tackle the issue of competing causes and affinities at home first

Our second poll question was, “What are the most pressing challenges you are facing in fundraising?” The most common responses included:

  • -Donor fatigue

  • -Resources

  • -Budget cuts

  • -Lack of staff

These responses probably aren’t news to you. Demands on time and resources continue to increase—for both you and your donors—especially when state and federal funding sources are in jeopardy. And this isn’t just a problem at law schools. When trying to engage alum, fundraisers often find that they’re competing with other causes and institutions.

One often overlooked step here is addressing intra-institutional divisions. One point that came up at the ABA conference was the issue of different groups or departments on campus hiding their alumni data and connections. During these divided times, collaboration is essential, so working to build partnerships and trust on campus is one first step. Ask yourself and your staff: outside of our office, where are the touch points between our institution and alumni, like career services, that can trigger an impactful gift, even in the long-term?

Want to learn more about how advancement, alumni affairs, and career development centers are working together? Look for the results of our nationwide survey on career services for alumni in early July. Research Consortium members will have complimentary access to the full report. Have you joined?

Insight 3: Philanthropy may be what saves higher ed

As Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the Obama Foundation, said during her talk at the conference, “Higher education is a place for safe and hard conversations.”

One of the main takeaways from the conference was that now is a time to try to inspire a culture of philanthropy in current students and younger alumni. This can create a sense of hope and purpose for the future as they tackle the systemic issues our country is grappling with. As fundraisers, you can help them realize that they have agency through giving. In the end, philanthropy in higher education is about trying to create ways for all different types of people to have access to education and improve their lives. In the future, the only way many institutions of higher education may survive is through philanthropy.

Our advice? Return to the mission.

What is higher education for? What does your institution prioritize and why? Who should have access to higher education and for what purpose? What do you believe in?

Valerie Jarrett and Esther Choy © ALUMinate US
Valerie Jarrett and Esther Choy © ALUMinate US

If you feel off-center in all this uncertainty, bring the fundraising work back to what and who you’re raising money for and how philanthropy can directly help address these tough issues. For example, does your institution have a major research center working to find solutions to a cause in the list above? How are you communicating that to alumni and donors who might want to be involved?

Did you know alumni can help you communicate your priorities to regional alumni and help you identify prospects and influencers? Contact us today to learn more.

One of the quotes I overheard at the ABA conference that most moved me was, “Now is the time to double down on the value of thought leadership.” And we need fundraising in higher education to do so.

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