College fundraisers optimistic about FY21, survey finds

College fundraisers optimistic about FY21, survey finds

Nearly two-thirds of college advancement officers expect to meet their fiscal year 2021 fundraising goals, a survey conducted in January by consulting firm Washburn & McGoldrick finds.

Based on survey responses from more than five hundred fundraising professionals at eighty-four institutions, the report, Advancement Moving Forward: Perspectives on the challenges to philanthropy during the COVID-19 pandemic (HTML or 25 pages, PDF), found that 65 percent of respondents in January were "confident"  they would meet their FY21 goals, up significantly from 40 percent in September and 17 percent in June. Another 28 percent said they were "uncertain," down from 46 percent and 54 percent in September and June, while 7 percent were "not confident," down from 28 percent and 14 percent.

The top three institutional priorities for the forty-seven chief advancement officers among the respondents were capital projects, financial aid, and operating support; other priorities included academic program support, endowments, faculty support, and social and racial justice. For all respondents, 87 percent of whom were working remotely all or most of the time, the top issues they reported being "bothered by" on a nearly daily basis were social and political unrest (79 percent of gift/alumni officers and 80 percent of CAOs, VPs, and AVPs), followed by Zoom fatigue (50 percent and 78 percent), lack of time for family/friends (35 percent and 48 percent), and handling both home and work responsibilities (37 percent and 45 percent). In terms of work issues, around half of respondents reported being "bothered by" budget freezes or reductions (45 percent of gift/alumni officers and 53 percent of CAOs, VPs, and AVPs).

The survey also highlighted differences between what development professionals expected would be the most challenging aspects of fundraising as of March 2020 and what they saw as the biggest challenges in January 2021. Whereas at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 61 percent and 58 percent of survey respondents said asking for and closing on gifts would be the most challenging task, only 26 percent and 35 percent cited those as actual challenges. By comparison, getting appointments (33 percent vs. 69 percent), engaging prospective donors (25 percent vs. 41 percent), and stewardship (2 percent vs. 11 percent) turned out to be challenges for more respondents than expected. About two-thirds of respondents expressed concern about building a new pipeline of prospective donors (68 percent) and maintaining fundraising momentum (66 percent) in the months to come.

"We've seen fairly encouraging giving by the numbers this past year, but I worry that we are not paying enough attention to donor retention," one survey respondent wrote in a comment. "Donors are giving me twenty-thirty minutes maximum typically for a phone or Zoom conversation, as they are typically overwhelmed with virtual meetings in their own work lives, and the needs of the college are less of a priority in a time of multiple crises at once. It is difficult to try to 'read the room' and be sensitive to the very personal, deep things my donors are going through while balancing my responsibility to promote the college I work for."