It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. It was my tenth year as a college president, and I was leading my senior staff through our weekly executive meeting. Enrollment was strong. We had come off a very good fundraising year. We were all feeling a sense of accomplishment.
That’s when a secretary flung open the door and told us to turn on the TV—a building in New York City was collapsing. The elation and satisfaction we had been feeling just moments earlier turned to a new reality on our campus, in our city and across the nation.
Even though we had never experienced anything like this and there were no guidelines for us to follow, we jumped into action. Over the next few days, we worked with students, faculty and families to ensure that safety, good communications and processes were all in place to handle the barrage of questions we were receiving. However, we didn’t give any special attention to or communicate with our donors. What a mistake that was!
In the midst of our strategizing, we failed to understand that our donors were feeling just as confused and scared as our students and their parents. We did send out emails to our alumni and friends alerting them to all we were doing for students, but we did not pick up the phones and call our donors to see how they were doing. In hindsight, I can see that we missed an opportunity to connect in a personal way with those who supported us.
It was only six years later that we faced the 2008 financial crisis. We were blessed to have the former Federal Reserve Chair on our trustee fellows board. He came to campus in 2007 to speak at a luncheon. The room was filled with bankers. He offered time for questions and answers after his speech. When asked if he was afraid of the rising national debt, he responding, “No. What will bring us to our knees is the home mortgage crisis coming our way.”
He was right, as we all found out. But even amid the nervousness of the time leading up the crisis, we decided to engage in a feasibility study. When the report came back, we were pleased and ready to embark on a capital campaign. But before we could, the bottom fell out of the economy. We decided to call off our campaign. Another mistake!
I felt charitable giving was the last thing donors would be thinking about. And for a few weeks, that was probably right. But by calling off the campaign instead of “practicing the pause” and reflecting on new realities, we lost our momentum. Those colleges that quietly postponed and then jumped back into their campaigns made the right choice.
Today we find ourselves in a new reality once more. No one can predict what the next four to eight weeks will hold. But at BrightDot, we see a great opportunity for fundraising. This is a moment to learn more about donors. Giving always starts with the heart, so use this time to find clues to what brings your donors joy. Here are some suggestions:
- Take your top 30 donors and/or prospects on a four-week “journey.” Divide them into two groups: A and B. Over the next two weeks, group A gets meaningful phone calls, while group B gets personal, handwritten notes. At the end of two weeks, switch the task. Assess what you learned and see how you can connect your work to their interests.
- Discover what you know about your portfolio. Sit in a comfortable chair with your favorite beverage and look at every name in your portfolio for 30 seconds. Picture the person in your mind, then write down beside their name what you think brings them joy (classical music, art, fishing, the beach). This will test what you know about them and help with the next suggestion.
- Create a simple, personal email during the next four weeks. Tell your donor or prospect what you are doing to stay busy. Suggest a TV show, book, or puzzle you recently enjoyed—something related to what you believe brings them joy.
I wish I had followed some of these strategies with my college donors in moments of crisis. Learn from my mistakes. You have an opportunity in this challenging time to get closer to donors’ hearts showing them you know who they are and you care about them!
Bill Crouch is Managing Partner and CEO of BrightDot.