James Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

How well did your culture of philanthropy perform during the “pandemic stress test?” What lessons can you and your development partner draw from the past few months of disruption to inform your fundraising strategy and help set priorities to move forward?

During this crisis, philanthropy has played an essential role in quickly developing new resources for all types of organizations to fight the challenges of coronavirus. Many organizations have shifted to targeted, transactional fundraising with great success, sometimes at the behest of donors. Elsewhere, donors interested in strengthening learning provided funds to help students and instructors pivot to virtual and distance learning. Other organizations were less prepared and made a choice to freeze budgets and reduce advancement staff as part of a policy to identify “essential” and “nonessential” roles.

Whatever shape the future takes, it is no longer business as usual. Strong organizations that have thrived during the crisis should not be complacent. Lesser-prepared organizations should assess their approach to philanthropy to build new resources. Either way, now is the time to work with your development colleagues to create a robust, go-forward strategy to ensure your culture of philanthropy is seen as essential to the future of the organization.

Building a stronger culture of philanthropy while executing a more aggressive fundraising strategy is tricky to pull off, but it can begin with an assessment of how well your organization’s fundraising has performed under the pressure of crisis. Ask your development colleague to provide data comparing the first six months of 2020 to previous years to provide an indication of how effective various methods of fundraising have been. Event-driven fundraising is likely to show underperformance, while direct appeals may show a spike up in results. While recent results may be atypical, they could indicate a need to develop alternate sources of revenue. Similarly, direct appeal results may skew higher, but could indicate future potential or help identify new donors.

Data is only one part of the mix. Listening deeply to your donors remains key. In all likelihood, causes and initiatives that were important to donors before the crisis remain important. During the crisis many organizations have done an admirable job of reaching out to donors simply to engage in a conversation, to check in with them during a period of forced isolation. What can the donors you work with tell you about their feelings, passions, and hopes? What effect has the crisis had on how they think about their own giving? Have their priorities or passions shifted? How can we shape our fundraising strategy in response to these shifts? How can we communicate more effectively with donors? Based on the answers your donors provide, your development colleagues can craft an engagement strategy that accounts for these potential changes in philanthropic passions.

Pay close attention to what your donors say—particularly to those shifts in passion that have been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Advancement teams can examine these donor stories in facilitated “focused listening sessions” to identify common themes and insights. Capturing those themes will help deepen your organization’s knowledge and understanding of donors and help guide the work your and your development colleague can do in building a donor-centered culture of philanthropy. As Mark McCampbell, senior vice president at Advancement Resources puts it, “With donors, you never stop pursuing their passion.”

The crisis has brought into focus the urgent and critical need to be on top of our game at all times. It is critical to communicate to all stakeholders that a strong culture of philanthropy is integral to the success of the organizational mission. We know from their generous response that donors will step up when there is an urgent need. But donor-centered philanthropy remains the key to transformational contributions. Pursing those contributions requires dedicated commitment to the process of donor engagement.


Looking to strengthen the culture of philanthropy at your institution? Consider attending Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders with your development colleague to begin the journey of strengthening the culture of philanthropy at your organization.

Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders

Grow a Culture of Philanthropy