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President's Perspective: An Unbeatable Investment

Educational advancement can prove its worth in tough economic times

By John Lippincott




The global economic crisis poses serious challenges for our work as educational advancement officers, whatever our discipline, whichever institution we serve, and wherever we operate. Meeting these challenges will require us to reframe, recalibrate, and redouble our efforts.

Reframe

We need to approach alumni relations, fundraising, communications, and marketing with great sensitivity to the changing economic circumstances of our constituents.

In our interactions with alumni, for example, we should take our cue from John F. Kennedy and ask not what our alumni can do for us but what we can do for our alumni. Our alumni operations should place greater emphasis on career services, lifelong learning, local networks, and online communities and less on programs that require alumni to come to us or give to us.

We also need to reframe the conversa­-tion with our donors, alumni and non-alumni alike. We need to listen more so we can learn about their changing personal circumstances. And when we talk, we need to talk more about the value of their engagement with the institution beyond their current gift. If they can't give more of their treasure, can they give more of their time and talent? And if they can't give now, might they want to consider the benefits in this economy of a deferred gift?

We need to approach other external constituents with greater sensitivity as well. Families whose budgets were already stretched to meet the rising cost of college tuition will be more concerned than ever about paying for their children's education. Legislators and media representatives will be listening carefully and perhaps skeptically to how we talk about our institutional circumstances at a time when many other pressing societal needs are going unmet.

With all our constituents, our messages should emphasize mission, not money. And so, for example, we may want to think twice about announcing a comprehensive fundraising campaign that has a huge monetary goal and instead launch a concerted effort to raise funds for a specific program that has huge human impact.

Recalibrate

We also need to recalibrate expectations internally. While individual experiences will vary widely, most institutions will find it much more difficult to grow philanthropic support during this economic downturn.

Take the example of institutions in the United States, where fundraising has grown at an average rate of 7 percent for the last 20 years. The latest CASE Fund­raising Index predicts that fundraising for calendar year 2009 will decline roughly 2 percent. Should that prove accurate, it would be only the second time in two decades that giving has turned negative. Educational institutions may want to use the CFI or other appropriate indices to reset their fundraising goals.

As noted earlier, we should also rethink the nature of alumni engagement and consider scaling back expectations for revenues from affinity programs, such as credit cards, and for participation levels in traditional activities, such as reunions and travel programs. That is not to suggest these programs don't continue to have significant value; but their value should not be judged against unrealistic benchmarks or previous growth patterns.

For our communications and marketing efforts, recalibration has been and should continue to be an ongoing exercise. It is the responsibility of the public relations and marketing experts to monitor all aspects of the external environment-economic, demographic, social, and political-to help the institution adjust its overall goals and strategies to rapidly changing market conditions.

Redouble

It will undoubtedly be more difficult to raise money, to engage alumni, to attract students, and to communicate effectively in this economic environment. And yet, these challenging times only increase our obligation as advancement officers to help ensure our institutions continue to have the external support they need to fulfill their missions.

So we are going to need to work smarter and harder. Just like the pilot flying into strong headwinds, the worst thing we can do is pull back on the throttle. But let's not forget that headwinds also increase lift. Even as our obligation to our institutions increases, so too does our importance. Institutions most likely to gain strength in these circumstances are those that steward their current relationships with great care, build new relationships with great enthusiasm, and tell their stories with great passion. And aren't those precisely our jobs?

Of course, doing our jobs will require ongoing support from within our institutions. Therefore, we need to remind our institutional leaders that, in good times and bad, a strong fundraising program is one of the most reliable revenue streams, an engaged alumni body is an asset that continues to grow, and a sustained communications effort is essential to building brand equity. We need to remind them, in short, that educational advancement is an unbeatable investment.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.

 

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