The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences was one of a handful of institutions that increased both total dollars and donors during the pandemic (CY20 vs CY19). We sat down with Angela Wimmer, Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement, and Stephanie Froehlich, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor of Development, about the changes they made during the pandemic and how they’re moving forward in 2021 and beyond.
In comparing calendar-year giving data from 2019 with 2020, EverTrue found the typical institution had 10 percent fewer donors in 2020 due to the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. Total revenue from gifts increased by 1 percent across the advancement sector, but fundraising totals varied greatly by institution. Read more here about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational fundraising.
UAMS doubled the size of portfolios during the pandemic
When the pandemic hit and travel ground to a halt, the UAMS team moved quickly. Knowing that the university would need philanthropic support more than ever and that development officers could use the time usually reserved for travel to make calls and run virtual meetings, Angela and Stephanie doubled their gift officers’ portfolios.
(Hear more about this on the RAISE podcast. The story starts at 33:00.)
Do whatever it takes to get visits in a virtual environment
From the outset, UAMS set high expectations for fundraiser activity. They required their development officers to check in with 100% of the constituents in their new portfolios — some of whom had never had a call with a gift officer before.
Their fundraisers reached out via phone or email, offer the opportunity to do a Zoom call or meet in an outdoor, socially distanced visit where appropriate.
If donors didn’t respond to repeated outreach, the team sent UAMS-branded coffee packets (Let’s have coffee together!) to try and add a little levity and normalcy in an upside-down world.
“When you get down to the basics, we want to offer anyone who’s in qualification all of the options,’” Angela said. “We’d ask for conversations over the phone, on Zoom, or in-person (masked, outdoors, and socially distant). If we were having a hard time getting in touch — or even before an initial touchpoint — we used coffee or some small gesture that helped to get a donor’s attention.”
(We have more ideas for securing virtual visits here.)
With the vaccine rollout, UAMS is shifting portfolio sizes again
“Some portfolios are staying a little heavier, but it depends on each development officer,” said Angela. “We have some development officers who are really experienced and have a robust pipeline, so they may not need an extra 100 people to qualify. Then we have other, newer fundraisers who need to be loaded up on the front-end to make sure they can build healthy pipelines through a lot of qualification visits and phone calls.”
Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to portfolios, UAMS uses pipeline quality to determine who needs to carry a larger qualification load — though all of their gift officers (Angela and Stephanie included) are asked to do qualification visits.
UAMS used EverTrue to change how they build portfolios
UAMS just hired three new gift officers. Instead of giving these new teammates a traditional portfolio (X-number of names or a list of people to work through), they gave these development officers the freedom to build their own portfolios within their assigned region.
“We’re telling them, ‘The world is your oyster. Go find your niche, your people, and make your portfolio your own,’” Stephanie said. “With EverTrue, you don’t need the same traditional or strict portfolio as you used to. We’ve assigned 12 regions as custom search fields in EverTrue. Now your region is your portfolio, and you can ‘create your own adventure’ based on the criteria in which you expect to find the most success.”
“This is a ‘fail forward approach at all levels. We are learning, pivoting, and adapting at a pace unlike any other institution I know. Our team is incredibly smart and agile, thanks to the culture Angela leads.”
Gift officers use EverTrue to search for the most likely to give, affluent, and unassigned prospects in their region. They add them to a list in EverTrue for planning and tracking purposes, then reach out. If the conversation goes well, the team can make a traditional assignment, but they wait to do that until a fundraiser has met with a prospect (virtually or in-person), had a conversation, and identified a path forward.
“We are democratizing prospect research and upskilling development officers to utilize tools like EverTrue for finding their best prospects,” Stephanie said. “I think the traditional prospect research approach and processes must change to leverage the new technology and evolving best practices.”
Continuing to invest in high-volume, personalized donor outreach
After effectively expanding coverage of their Giving Pyramid during the pandemic, UAMS wanted to continue engaging more donors with face-to-face stewardship and fundraising.
So they’ve hired three Donor Experience Officers and are working with EverTrue to build 1,000+-person portfolios to engage current leadership donors and send a steady flow of new referrals to major gift officers.
Whatever happens in the future, build experiences around your donors
“Frankly, we don’t know what the world will look like in six months, so every interaction has to be in line with the comfort level of donors and our major gift officers,” said Angela.
Some donors are okay with Zoom. Some need that face-to-face visit. It’s a matter of asking each person how they want to be engaged.
In the past year, UAMS fundraisers have…
- Helped coach a 97-year-old donor how to use Zoom (He’s gone on to become a 7-figure donor and has recruited several friends to support the university.).
- Held socially distanced picnics in donors’ driveways.
- Shifted in-person gatherings to intimate salon-style video calls, which have been especially effective for engaging new prospects.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how a fundraiser closes a gift. It’s just about making that ask and exceeding goals.
“As long as you’re effective, I don’t really care what you do to reach donors. You can write a prospect list on the back of your hand if you have to,” Stephanie said, laughing. “The beauty of where we’re at now is that fundraisers to be as creative as they want to be. They can be technology-driven or take a more traditional approach and it doesn’t matter — we just want them to be effective.”
“We have to maintain our success,” Angela added. “And we’ll adapt for whatever comes next.”