Advancement leaders share their biggest lessons from 2020

Lessons from 2020

We’ll look back at 2020 as the year everything changed.

Remember the beginning of the year? We were still getting on planes, meeting with donors in their homes, attending conferences, and planning reunions. Sweatpants weren’t yet work-appropriate attire.

Oh, how much has changed!

COVID-19 turned everyone into digital fundraisers and pushed advancement to squeeze 10 years of innovation, change, and new ideas into 10 months.

So at the end of this most-unusual year, it’s good to look back at what we learned that we’ll take into 2021 and beyond.

Take a deep breath and reflect on your own year as we share lessons advancement leaders learned in 2020.

Share your own! Tweet us. Email us. Or comment below.

“Don’t underestimate the power of your teams or your donors to change and adapt. In the past, we’ve been timid about change when it comes to technology. 2020 forced our hand. 

Guess what? Everyone adapted and is thriving. Don’t be afraid to dream big just because you think people can’t or won’t change. They can and will when you make the right case for it.”

—  Adrian Owen Jones, Assistant Vice President of Advancement Services, LSU Foundation

“Don’t slow down. The donors are out there and they want to support their institutions more than ever. Be sensitive, but don’t slow down.”

Deborah Vanecek, Director of Annual Giving, Vassar College

“2020 has revealed it’s more important than ever (and quite all right) to take a risk, step outside the box and imagine every possible, wonderful, “What if?” within our industry. 

Why not continue to set our sights high, test, try, explore and fall in love all over again with the amazing work we are privileged to do? We are champions, data-inspired thinkers, and trail blazers doing all we can to support students’ dreams… and maybe our own too.” 

Lola Mauer, Associate Vice President of Strategy at Ball State University Foundation

“Trust the process, but remain flexible.” 

Samuel Sanker, Director of Development, Wake Forest University

“‘Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.’ – Atomic Habits.

“This quote has shaped my approach in 2020 and it aligns with our company strategy as we’ve introduced new data offerings and EverTrue Premier. The more we can reduce friction to support the right quantity and quality of daily activities, the more successful we’ll be in building relationships with our customer community, and the more successful we’ll be in helping our customers build relationships with their constituents.”

Brent Grinna, Founder & CEO of EverTrue

“The phone call isn’t dead.

As we all started pivoting to Zoom and contactless development work; the tried and true method of calling a donor worked wonders in 2020. It didn’t matter if it was for discovery, cultivation, or solicitation, sometimes just picking up the phone made all the difference.”

 — Blake Davis, Assistant Vice President, Development and External Affairs at Southern Methodist University

“For me, 2020 was all about getting prepared to respond to the unexpected. 2020 drove home the need to create an environment that fosters nimble, thoughtful creativity. We had to learn to take more calculated risks since we were venturing into uncharted territory. We had to lean on research-based decisions, rather than evidence-based decisions since we couldn’t often look to our past tests or tests of our peers to make decisions.” 

Cutler Andrews, Senior Associate Vice President for Engagement, Communications, and Marketing, Emory University

“If culture eats strategy for breakfast, 2020 has shown us that consistency eats content for lunch. Engaging alumni and donors is about showing up consistently in their realm of attention — the new currency of the digital marketing age.” 

Dr. Jay Le Roux Dillon, Executive Director of Alumni Relations, University of California, Berkeley

“From focusing on the basics to embracing the retained donor, I hope we refocus our work on the generosity of others and the spirit of hope and rebuilding our communities. I also hope we do our best to make diversity and inclusion a part of our daily existence. As we foster tolerance and inclusion it too should grow.”

Lynne Wester, Donor Relations Guru (read Lynne’s and her team’s full 2020 recap)

“1- You can never overinvest in your people. 

2- Work-self and human-self are the same; we bring both with us every day. 

3- We are all more resilient than we ever thought was possible.”

Heather Kopec, Director of Annual Giving, Virginia Tech

“Be flexible and support one another.”

Arcadia Rodriguez-Ruiz, Assistant Director of Prospect Management, University of Virginia

And if you’re interested in my personal, work-related takeaway? 

“Add value. Whether you’re talking to a donor, your team, or a potential customer, always deliver something worthwhile. In order to break through the noise, stress, and chaos, you need to deliver value.

Solve problems. Give things away for free. Make people smile.”


It’s been a year, hasn’t it? 

Thank you to the hundreds of people in development and alumni relations who have shared their experiences on the RAISE podcast, at the RAISE conference, on this blog, in webinars, networking sessions, and in so many other ways.

Working in advancement is wonderful because this is an industry that is always willing to help each other by sharing what’s working and what we’re learning.

Thanks for being a part of that. See you in 2021!

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