Peter Heller

Nonprofit Success: How to Surpass Fundraising Campaign Goals During a Pandemic

By Erica Marks

Down and Dirty Guide to Wrapping Up Your Campaign During a Pandemic:

Have the ingredients ready:  a terrific president and great staff; a highly respected university with excellent rankings and strong social mobility index placement.

  • Have the wind at your back:  lots of prior fundraising momentum doesn’t hurt.
  • Set up conditions that make it easy to pivot:
    • Hire top-notch IT staff to train and help the move to remote work
    • Equip staff to work remotely
  • Take advantage of a rising stock market. Many individuals got richer while others suffered.
  • Help those who wish to, give back:
    • Give people a place to make a difference – the Student Crisis Fund was ours. This was already in place and we were able to promote it before donor “fatigue” came to pass. 
    • Share moving stories about the plight of students/your beneficiaries. These are real stories about real people (identities masked, of course). Donors will respond.
    • Give donors a home, a place where they know they are appreciated and needed.
  • Launch one or two matching gifts to inspire and organize giving around a clear goal.
  • Repurpose facilities to help others. Our 3D printing – Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center was converted into 24/7 manufacturing center for face shields to go with PPEs. We got lots of press and rode that wave to raise funds to support the center’s operations.
  • Reconnect with former supporters and provide an ear for quiet reflecting.

Just one year ago…

March 2020: The development and alumni relations team finished planning for the final year of Soaring Higher—the very first campaign in SUNY New Paltz’s history. But by mid-March the College’s leadership team was meeting three hours daily to determine how to keep everyone safe. In July my team revised our fiscal year 2021 goal downwards by $1 million, dropping below $3 million for the first time in seven years. Even that seemed like a lot as we faced our computer screens with the prospect of no travel and no meetings. We still had a shot at completing our $23 million campaign by June 2021, but it was going to be tough.

March 2021:  We’re closing in on $24.5 million with two months to go—105% of our goal. How did this come about? It has less to do with pandemic challenges, and more to do with the metaphorical soil we’d tilled, seedlings we’d planted, and plants we’d nurtured.

So – how did we do it?

Leadership and a great product

At the top is our extraordinary President Donald Christian, an ethical, collaborative, and kind leader. SUNY New Paltz has a highly competitive admissions process while serving a large minority, first generation, and under-resourced population. We’re known for high graduation and completion rates, far above national averages, and rank in the top 3% nation-wide social mobility indexes. Diversity and inclusion work has been prioritized for several years; the ethos of caring seeps through all we do.

We have an engaged 22-member Foundation Board, built over time to better reflect the population we serve. We aggressively recruited diverse members (and thanked others for their service) during our campaign period, holding folks to high standards of commitment. Their minimum giving level is $5,000 a year, which each person achieves and/or surpasses.

Our groundbreaking Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center (3D printing), launched thanks to funds donated during the campaign, grew out of a collaboration between Engineering and Fine Art.

Our endowment fund totaled $14 million a decade ago; today it’s over $34 million. Today graduating seniors give $20.21 to honor their graduation year – a new tradition of giving for the future. 

Excellence is predicated on great leadership; I’ve been fortunate to experience that firsthand.

It continued with a great team

Our small but highly motivated team is characterized by caring and a ton of hard work—we’ve got two major gift officers, staff to manage database operations, stewardship, and annual fund, and an accounting office. With an outstanding deputy director and a talented CFO we’re also able to run the SUNY New Paltz Foundation—a stand-alone 501(c)(3)—with the mission of supporting the university. Our newly formed alumni council and director are based in-house, helping to build a base of loyal alumni supporters.

Practical matters—technology, preparedness, flexibility

We continually evaluate our processes. What’s the goal of this post card, event, or meeting? How can we make our technology, flawed as it often is, work best for us? Do our policies enhance the donor relationship? We removed all fees from our endowed and annual gifts, for example, and can truly say 100% of your gift goes directly to students or the program.

We were one step ahead—well before the pandemic

Our work was never about sitting in the office – we (gift officers, stewardship, and alumni relations staff) participated in events and helped on the road. We replaced desk top computers with laptops. Our donors and prospects are engaged based on their areas of expertise. They speak with students, join our Women’s Leadership Summit, Hudson Valley Future Summit, 100 Days Until Graduation festivities for students, and participate in President’s Roundtables with a dozen students to share their lived experiences and answer questions. Most activities were reimagined and transformed to a virtual format this year.

“Regular” relationships matter

Naturally we also engage philanthropic alumni and individuals of great means, but many of our most affluent alumni were ignored for years and have become engaged elsewhere; it has been a challenge to bring them back to New Paltz. Some do return and have found great joy interacting with students and faculty alike.

However, we are proud to note that among our most generous donors are faculty and retired faculty, individuals who have been “cultivated” their entire lives. They know the student story, the challenges of the single mom who cannot pay for books, the delight of an exceptionally engaged learner, the benefit of having extra money to bring students on a field trip. 

We received a surprise bequest during the campaign that helped transform our Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art and Sojourner Truth Library at a time of need. The donor, a retired faculty member, had been quietly enjoying those venues for decades and wanted to say thank you.

Haves and have-nots

The pandemic brought the story of “haves and have-nots” into sharper relief. Many of our donors became aware of what others lacked. They came to understand how students were suffering both psychologically, but also financially. They read about families experiencing loss and considered what that would mean for young people struggling to complete school. We helped them understand the economic realities of life without a college education. 

A year before the pandemic made this divide even clearer, we instituted the Student Crisis Fund in response to students suffering from food insecurity, economic inequality, and a high cost of living with few jobs. Once the pandemic hit, we promoted this fund, raising well over $100,000 and giving away as much too.

Black Lives Matter, not as an afterthought

SUNY New Paltz has taken care to consider and work hard to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion long before the murder of George Floyd and others took place before our eyes. A few years earlier our president led a conversation about renaming several buildings on campus named for families who enslaved others. This ultimately led to the buildings renaming and engaged all of campus in a profound and meaningful discussion about racism and its many manifestations.

We continue to have a great deal of work to do, and that work will never be done. We have not yet fully engaged philanthropic leaders of color, so we have begun to forge deep friendships and identify partners and leaders to guide us. It is exciting to contemplate the long-overdue change of having our philanthropic partners more strongly reflect the composition of our student body.

Finding a home for our donors’ philanthropy

During the pandemic our work became more donor-centric than ever before. We listened to our donors, many of whom shifted their priorities to providing direct student support, supporting programs for student mental health, and supporting meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. We also launched the free on-line platform FreeWill to support our donors interested in estate planning, and have signed up nearly 30 individuals in just a few months to our legacy society, the Tower Society.

Hard, hard work

The year was and continues to be exhausting. I’d shared this with my boss, the president, last fall. He in turn, shared my worries with one of our devoted donors. To relieve our anxiety, she made a $100,000 cash and $300,000 bequest gift—the final $400,000 needed to make our campaign goal in December 2020. This generous gift allowed my team to joyfully and without pressure engage our supporters for the final six months of Soaring Higher. I had coffee with her recently, outside, for the first time since the pandemic began, and was able to finally thank her in person.

In Summary

Partnership with New Paltz’s donors has been forged by strong leadership, the courage to address important issues such as student financial crises and mental health, racism and inequality, and donors’ interest in making sound investments in a trusted institution. The pandemic shone a spotlight on what we’d done well to date and where we need more work.

We look forward to announcing our final campaign total on July 1, 2021, and at our in-person campus-wide celebration in September. In the words of retired Professor and Board Director Giancarlo Traverso, 

“I give, in this loving lengthy process, as many give, people we call philanthropists, whose meaning from the Greek is “a lover of others” where love is shown by giving to others, no matter the amount, whether one million, or one thousand or one dollar. For each amount contributes to the student’s fuller realization of self. And that is one hell of a return on investment, better than anything Wall Street can offer!”

Erica Marks lives and works in the mid-Hudson Valley, New York, serving as Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations at SUNY New Paltz and Executive Director of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation.

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