Adapting in Advancement
There is little that is normal about the fall 2020 semester. As North American colleges and universities have welcomed new and returning students to a) campus, b) remote classes, or c) some mix of both, circumstances are constantly changing. Campus COVID-19 outbreaks are headline news, along with how higher education institutions are safeguarding the health of students, faculty, and staff.
The persistent uncertainty, introduction of new policies, budget tightening, and increased media attention have had a major impact on institutions’ advancement personnel who, just like students and faculty, have been forced to forge new paths during the pandemic. The beginning of the new school year has been particularly tough on frontline communicators.
Social Media and Social Distancing
“I’ve been pretty open and honest about the mental exhaustion this can take,” says Kati Hartwig, coordinator of social media and digital marketing at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “People are tired, people are upset, and that in turn is reflected on social media. It is taxing to have to read some of those negative comments. It’s hard not to take it personally, even when it’s not directed at you. You’re the brand’s bodyguard.”
Kasandrea Sereno, founder of the #HigherEdSocial Facebook group for social media managers and digital communicators at universities and colleges, says the pandemic has taken a significant toll on her colleagues. An informal survey conducted among the group’s thousands of members found that a majority were so overwhelmed by their jobs, they would quit if they had the financial means to do so.
“They felt like they were doing good work and supported by local managers, but there were major frustrations with being the last ones to know things and then have to communicate about them,” says Sereno, who is also a lead undergraduate advisor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “And we’ve seen people furloughed and laid off in very important frontline communication roles—some people who you did not think would be on the job market.”
That’s not the case for Hartwig, who feels fortunate to be included in YSU’s decision-making. She also says the administration is “in the loop” with what she’s doing online, which has changed considerably since the pandemic began in terms of both volume and transparency.
“Right now, we’re doing more meaningful communication. We’re not holding back,” she says. “If it’s worth the time of our faculty, staff, etc., to read, we’ll send it out. We wanted everyone to understand where we were at, in terms of health and safety, as we began this semester.”
New ways to Fundraise
Of course, communicators aren’t the only ones personally engaging constituents. Frontline fundraisers are also mitigating the pandemic’s challenges as the traditional school year begins.
Paul Chesser, vice president of advancement at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, says he’s thrilled with how the institution’s fundraisers have been able to connect with donors during the last six months. He’s been pleasantly surprised by their flexibility to conduct major gift conversations in a virtual setting.
“On the other hand, starting new relationships is difficult,” Chesser says, “when you can’t meet the dean, have alumni visit with their favorite professors, see the campus, or meet with students.”
Engagement opportunities for donors and alumni are completely different this fall, agrees Justin Fincher, vice president for advancement's strategy, and administration team at The Ohio State University. He says that a season without sports or other large-scale events forces everyone to reimagine engagement.
“I can’t quantify this. We’re looking at how we are celebrating Buckeyes without football as the backdrop,” Fincher says. “We always start with how we want people to feel, whether that’s an in-person event or an online meeting. That feeling is still possible. We are taking students with us on Zoom meetings with donors. And if virtual campus tours don’t look different a year from now, we’ve all missed the mark.”
Although the pandemic has shown the viability of virtual connections between fundraisers and donors, both Chesser and Fincher acknowledge that the struggle remains for development professionals who are often extroverts and accustomed to traveling and meeting face-to-face.
“It takes a lot of reimagination and thinking about the future versus dwelling on what we can’t do right now,” Fincher says. “If we keep focusing on what worked before with the limitations we have today, it’s going to feel like a substandard experience and relationship.”
Acclimating to the New Normal
No matter if an institution is fully online, fully on-campus, or—like most—somewhere in between, everyone in advancement is seeking the best ways to adapt to this a very different fall semester. Central Community College, which serves 25 counties in Nebraska, recently hosted its first in-person alumni events since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The college’s Ram Run, which benefits a scholarship fund through the CCC Foundation, featured the choice for participants to take part in the “usual” event (with new precautions) or virtually.
“People are everywhere as far as their comfort level,” says Cheri Beda, alumni director at Central Community College. “We got a lot more people interested with the virtual option. It helped! If someone is not OK with being there, we still want them to participate in the ways they can.”
Other advancement professionals at community colleges have taken on new duties. Pamela Clark, executive director of institutional advancement at Delta College in University Center, Michigan, never thought she’d be packing boxes of textbooks for students in the back of the campus bookstore. Sonbol Aliabadi, executive director of the Sierra College Foundation in Rocklin, California, probably didn’t think she’d be spending part of every Wednesday distributing food and gift cards to students in a parking lot.
Many are trying to balance those immediate needs with the longer-range goals of their institutions. After communicating for months about necessary updates, YSU’s Hartwig recognized that there was the possibility that audiences weren’t always getting the big-picture view of the university from its social media accounts.
“We reached out to faculty and students, asked them, ‘Why did you choose YSU?’” she says about the posts that include a headshot or a picture taken on campus. “It’s evergreen content that we can pepper in with back-to-campus and COVID-19 news. We want to tell that story of what our institutions are like.”
Fundraisers have to find a similar equilibrium between the short-term and the long haul. Ohio State’s Fincher says that it can’t just be about closing the next gift; his colleagues must take a widescreen perspective.
“Every day we take the long view with urgency,” he says. “Fundraisers are best at painting the picture of where the institution is headed and delivering support as urgently as possible.”
Chesser says that donors want to hear about “a fall unlike we’ve seen before” and the effect it is having on students. It’s part of the reason Concordia has been able to raise more than CA$1 million for a student emergency fund. But he says that constituents also want to learn about university programs that have become more relevant because of the pandemic, including Concordia’s institute focusing on city planning in regard to health, safety, and resilience.
“Six months ago, it’s linkage between city planning and the way people live, work, and commute was interesting,” he says. “Now, it’s super relevant and it’s linked more to our community health initiative. There are priorities that have emerged clearer than ever before because of this.”
Health Remains Paramount
Any sort of health-related outreach has taken on new prominence, although it can be difficult communicating about these topics in a way that’s both helpful and engaging. As an example, Sereno cites USF social media posts featuring mascot Rocky the Bull wearing a mask over his nose and mouth.
“How do we nudge people? That’s marketing 101,” she says. “Putting a mask on our mascot makes it less scary. It lowers that barrier for people. We’re often speaking to young humans. How can we communicate serious information in a way that’s palatable?”
Hartwig was inspired to conduct a poll about mental health via YSU’s Twitter account, following discussions she’d had with students in a class she teaches.
“Our students are adults. Let’s not be afraid to talk about this,” she says. “Lots of them are studying online and it’s isolating. It’s OK to not be OK.”
She thought it was important to address mental health in an August poll, which was followed by posts about resources the university provides for those who might be struggling. Concordia’s Chesser says that it’s important to remember that everyone is struggling, no matter if they are donors, students, alumni, faculty, staff, or community members.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and no one has the answers,” he says. “When I sit and talk with my colleagues from other universities and realize that we’re all learning every day during this rapidly changing time, it’s reaffirming to remember that we don’t have all of the answers right now. The key is going to be adaptability.”
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is a content creator at CASE