Survive and Advance
When COVID-19 forced Ventura College to remote learning, its foundation’s struggles were instantly compounded. In addition to finding the best ways to assist students encountering unforeseen challenges, the Ventura College Foundation also had to ensure its own stability.
As a financially independent organization (in relation to its community college), the foundation relies on the money generated by its Weekend Marketplace, an outdoor market that typically attracts thousands of shoppers every week. When the California college went to online learning for health and safety precautions, the Marketplace shut down for the same reasons. And Anne Paul King, the foundation’s executive director, started to make difficult decisions.
“It was very fast. We had $26,000 in payroll due and we were set to lose $20,000 that weekend alone with the Marketplace down,” King says. “I spent four hours on the phone with anyone who might have had some good advice to give me.”
Drastic action was necessary. King furloughed all 13 members of the Marketplace staff; that way she could bring them back as soon as it could reopen safely. In addition, she laid off two foundation employees whose responsibilities were geared to in-person duties. It certainly wasn’t easy.
“As hard as it is, it’s always clear that I have to preserve the mission of the foundation and the college,” King says. “I knew that every day we delay we’re chewing up cash that the organization needs. We need to keep this place alive, so our students are served long into the future.”
King worked with the foundation’s director of finance to alter the endowment policy to free up funds and make a cash flow projection that showed stability through July. After 10 weeks, the Marketplace was allowed to open with reduced vendors and capacity—the result of a plan King and her team presented to the county public health department.
The financial projections started to expand a little further down the road (“first it was July, then the end of 2020, then March 2021, and now the end of June 2021,” King says). Along the way, the Marketplace has been able to grow to 144 vendors, although with safety protocols in place, the enterprise is producing only 30% of pre-pandemic revenue. King’s goal is to slowly reach 44%.
“I feel really good about the decisions we made. It feels so good to see our projections extend every month or two,” she says. “They were tough, but the right decisions to make.”
Decisions didn’t come much easier for the folks at Monroe Community College (and its foundation) in Rochester, New York. In response to the pandemic, the college underwent a reorganization resulting in the creation of a new Institutional Advancement Division. Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer Gretchen Wood leads the new division and also serves as the executive director of the MCC Foundation.
The reorganization brought the departments of institutional research, government and community relations, and institutional compliance—along with the MCC Foundation—under the wings of advancement.
“It was an accelerated process,” Wood says. “The situation warranted a good hard look at what we could do to streamline our structure and ensure the college is in the best position to serve our students.”
She says that the move made decision-making more efficient and was logical, given that these departments all serve the entire institution. Wood used a similar strategy to further restructure the work of the foundation’s staff.
When MCC went to remote learning in March, the foundation had two open positions. As a way of forging ahead with the existing 13 staff members, Wood chose not to hire for those two positions and instead reorganized the foundation during the summer to better integrate donor engagement and development staff. They now share support resources that previously functioned separately.
“We’ve kept the whole team and we are striving to be as efficient as possible,” she says, adding that the larger impetus for the shifts at MCC and the foundation came down to one factor: “It’s very clear that private philanthropy is going to play a large role in the continued success of the college and its students. This reorganization better positions us into being able to work together with that in mind.”
Like Monroe Community College, Harper College has kept its 42-member advancement team intact in 2020, in part by adapting responsibilities to meet the moment. Mike Barzacchini—director of marketing at the Palatine, Illinois, college—says that flexibility is the result of an “all hands on deck” approach that existed long before COVID.
So, when campus reopened in July for students to complete their lab work from the spring semester, advancement staff from the mail center and print services were trained to become hallway monitors and temperature checkers.
“It’s not that work disappeared. The nature of it changed,” Barzacchini says. “We rebalanced some workloads. The web team was being swamped, so the print team can cross-train and help with web updates.”
Laura Brown, Harper’s vice president of marketing and communications and chief advancement officer, can rattle off the limitless challenges the college has faced since last March, but also the ways that advancement staff have worked closely to achieve virtual events, constant communication, and a donor appreciation drive-in movie night. She says that the past eight months have made her and her team more intentional about resources.
“When we shoot a video, we think, ‘How can we multi-purpose?’ The foundation’s donors are one audience for this. How might we use these stories in a different way to communicate to others?” she says. “And when we’re doing photography, what else can we shoot? How can we make the most of this?”
With the amount of new photography, Brown says Harper was able to hire (on a contingent basis) a photographer who had lost most of her work due to the pandemic. Brown and Barzacchini each talk about bringing on current and former students to help out in communication areas, such as web and social media, that have seen a surge in 2020.
“This year, we’ve taken a step back and thought about everything we do,” Barzacchini says. “We have to think what’s the best way to do this… now? It excites and exhausts me. One positive of this crisis is that it has helped us stay creative and seek innovative solutions.”
Advancement leaders at these community colleges are always looking forward. They share an optimistic outlook for 2021 and have different reasons for wanting the pandemic to end as soon as possible.
Harper’s Brown talks about how her team is built on person-to-person interaction and looks forward to the day when all staff can celebrate each other together, in the manner of previous holiday parties. MCC’s Wood praises educators who have been “amazing in delivering remote and online education,” but acknowledges that some students yearn for a return to the classroom. She’s hopeful that all students can get the support they need to be successful until the pandemic subsides.
Ventura’s King focuses on the frontline workers who make up so much of her college’s community, and the myriad impacts of a pandemic and a weakened economy on students. She knows that many understand the vital work that community colleges and their foundations provide with the help of donors.
“We need to remember the lessons we’re learning right now. Otherwise, we’re just as vulnerable as we were when this began,” she says. “We’re so exhausted, but we’re committed. It’s going to be a big relief when we can take a breath.”
Ventura College’s Anne Paul King and Harper College’s Laura Brown and Mike Barzacchini addressed crisis response in sessions that were part of the 2020 Community College Advancement Seminar Series. Registered attendees can access recordings of these presentations in the CASE Communities.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is the Communications Manager at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, U.S. He is a former CASE Content Creator.