Shifting to all-digital communications and alumni engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s a remote-working, video-conferencing, all digital engagement world. At least for now and the next few weeks. But as the coronavirus spreads and we all shelter in place, there’s still a huge need for alumni and donor engagement. 

Ashley Budd is the Director of Digital Marketing for Cornell University’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Development (and a full-time remote worker). She chatted about what teams need to know and do to shift to fully digital programming during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Go global. Prioritize topics that everyone’s thinking about.

“We have been hit with a firehose of digital content requests, ideas, and stuff we already have in the can that we should resurface, and stuff we need to produce.

We had one program on Tuesday (March 23) that we decided was a worthy program to communicate to all alumni and parents — including parents of current students. A panel of faculty experts talked about the origins of COVID-19, response management, and the future impact on the economy. We pulled together our all-stars from our college of medicine, our business school, our veterinary college. We aired the panel live and did questions, then we rebroadcast the panel and did live questions again for our international audience later in the week.

We’re shifting to a global focus. We’re thinking about events being planned digitally first. 

This makes me very happy because, running a digital team for as long as I have, we’ve been trying to change our culture to think digital-first and now we’re going to be forced to. In some ways, that’s exciting to see, to see how we work and how we think about our work going forward.” 

Looking for other ways to engage your audience digitally? During a live Q&A with Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru, the audience shared great examples of how they’re adapting fast.


How to talk about fundraising

“We aren’t going to market any funds [at these digital events], but we’re ready to respond when people do raise their hand. We have a list of funds at the ready if folks do have questions, and a lot of them are annual funds. 

Every single college at Cornell has an annual fund. Our units have annual funds, and those are the unrestricted dollars that aren’t earmarked. They’re flexible and help in times like this. It’s a great opportunity for us to re-educate our audiences about how important the annual funds are.”


Remember this will forever shape the class of 2020

“We’re also being really sensitive to the class of 2020 right now… This class is going to be unlike any other class. We’re going to have to be really thoughtful about them forever and their experience in this last year. We have a team thinking about how we can serve the class of 2020 [going forward].”

Tune in to the RAISE podcast where Ashley shares how Cornell creates personal experiences for their alumni.


Use the right tools to keep everyone on the same page

“We need to have systems in place to get hyper-organized. That’s going to take some time. So if you’re in a position like me where you’re getting flooded with digital content requests and asks, and all of a sudden everyone needs to know how to do everything digitally, push back on those expectations a bit. Give yourself time to get organized, to organize your resources, to organize places to gather all of this information so that it’s in one place. 

And that one place cannot be your inbox… For me, it means moving stuff out of my inbox into a project management tool (we use Basecamp). I’m moving conversations out of my inbox into a chat platform like Slack or Skype. 

It’s a lot of behavioral change for staff who aren’t used to working fully digitally. Our own workflows need to change from sticky notes and stopping people in the hall, to just being hyper-organized… It’s going to take a few weeks. Give yourself time to get organized and it’ll pay dividends.”



Here’s EverTrue’s take on the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact on advancement: We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to learn from each other and share best practices for remote fundraising, working from home, managing fundraisers remotely, and handling uncertainty. Bookmark this page and subscribe for ongoing updates.


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