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Spring Forward: A Reckoning within the Reemergence

By Matthew S. Helmer


Throughout my career in higher education, spring has consistently been a season of hyperactive planning for a new academic year set to begin in the fall – an opportunity to reimagine what we do and how, one that all too often ends in a disappointing “rinse and repeat.” Like nearly every aspect of the past 12 months, however, this particular planning period looks and feels different. And that’s a really good thing.


With vaccination rates on the rise and a glimmer of hope for a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, many of us are thinking optimistically about what’s next. Much has been written about the “new normal” — of more widespread adoption of remote working practices, virtual donor visits and hybrid events — yet after more than a year of restrictions, quarantines and experiments with new technology, how much permanent change are we, our organizations and our donors willing to embrace? The answers to these questions are likely to be as varied as the myriad responses to the virus, and each is a critical piece to solving our organization’s donor relations equation as the world reopens.


I think history will be kind to those who find a way to maintain the creative thinking, efficiencies and truly meaningful connections forged through innovative approaches to our work over the past year. And I believe it will be equally pitiless to those who sacrifice the gains we’ve made in focusing on purpose-driven work by striving for a fast and full return to the world as we knew it before March 2020. We cannot have it both ways, my friends — to create space for new ideas, we must be willing to relinquish some of the old.


While there is value in offering aspects of what came before, there also is much to be gained in assessing the lessons of living through the pandemic and applying these to the creation of a richer, more nuanced donor experience in the future. Within that assessment lies a reckoning, because unless you stumbled upon a few magic beans whilst working from home, there are certain to be trade-offs in designing what comes next — trade-offs driven by resource constraints of time, people and budget. So, let’s be ready for the difficult choices and crucial conversations that lie before us.


First and foremost, do the homework. Use concrete data to evaluate the effectiveness of reinvented efforts, especially in comparison to previous offerings, and allow this to inform next steps. Be it virtual events, impact reports, Zoom visits, or fresh communications, which of these engaged larger, broader and/or new audiences? Ask donors: what aspects should be maintained going forward? And ask ourselves: what are we willing to give up to keep it — from in-person experiences to gift officer travel to less effective endeavors of any kind (even those previously treasured and untouchable) — something’s gotta give.


Maybe it’s the annual gala. Perhaps it was possible to generate similar or improved fundraising results by offering a smaller online experience and refocusing all that event planning energy on major gifts.


Perhaps it’s in how donors experience the organization. By operating with tightly controlled capacity, ticketed venues such as museums have been able to create more individualized experiences for visitors. With public health restrictions lifted, what possibilities exist for expanding the pipeline and curating memorable moments for donors by maintaining even one percent of those restricted access times for use by the fundraising team?


And what about the ballroom filled with scholarship donors and the palpable disappointment of empty seats reserved for no-show recipients? Is such a fuss even necessary when only a few hours of 1:1 Zoom calls can create more consequential beneficiary interactions?


We’re at a unique moment in time where we can lead this conversation within our organizations to ensure we reemerge in the coming months with a fortified donor experience and a stronger ROI on our overall donor relations strategy. Looking closely, we may discover that what once was “tried and true” has simply become tired. By committing to more than checking it off our task list, we can confront the crucial conversations within our planning process that lead us to a purposeful renewal — one that’s worth coming back for.


DRG Group member Matthew S. Helmer serves as Assistant Vice President and Chief Communications Officer for University Advancement at Colorado State University. He’s got a list of hopes and dreams for what stays (contactless delivery!) and what goes (events without a purpose) when the pandemic ends. Connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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