New Survey Reveals Educational Advancement Leaders Confident in Reaching Their Fundraising Goals But Concerned About Donor Pipeline

November 2021 Survey of Advancement Professionals

The WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK November 2021 survey of advancement professionals is the sixth in our Advancement Moving Forward series on the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The previous five surveys in this series were conducted in April 2020, June 2020, September 2020, January 2021 and May 2021. Details about the methodology and participating institutions are found at the end of this report.

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Survey Finds Hybrid Workplaces Now Dominate Office Structure; Impact of “Great Resignation” Creating Challenges for Advancement Officers and Fundraising Professionals

As the nation’s colleges, universities and private educational institutions operate campus environments that have been adapted for the COVID-19 era, a new nationwide survey of educational advancement leaders on these campuses reveals they are feeling confident about reaching their fundraising goals for the year.

Yet, despite this confidence, there remains concerns about their ability to grow their fundraising pipeline and to staff their teams. There is also a clear gap between the confidence of chief advancement officers (CAO) and their senior managers compared to major gift and alumni relations officers in their ability to reach their fundraising goals.

According to the survey findings, a vast majority of CAOs (91%) say they are confident that they will be able to achieve their current fundraising goals. This confidence level among CAOs has increased from 82% to 91% since the last survey was conducted in May of this year. At the same time confidence among gift/alumni officers has decreased from 80% to 74%. These data suggest that, while overall confidence is high, there is a significant difference between these two groups.

The survey, the sixth in a series conducted by WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK, one of the nation’s leading educational and institutional advancement consulting firms, finds that the confidence level among educational CAOs and their senior managers has steadily grown from a low in April 2020 at twenty-four percent (24%) to over ninety-one percent (91%) in the most recent survey.

The survey of 455 advancement professionals represented 119 educational institutions including eleven HBCUs, twelve independent schools and seven Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).

The downturn in gift/alumni officer confidence seems to be due to uncertainty about maintaining momentum and their experiences over the last two years. Respondents were asked to comment on the most substantial change to their work this fall. Analysis of those comments reveals 64% of the gift/alumni officers cite regaining momentum (35%) or returning to in-person meetings (29%). These individuals are more likely to report uncertainty (28%) about reaching FY22 goals than those citing other reasons (18%) such as travel, metrics, and staff shortages.

In terms of building a donor pipeline, forty-nine percent of CAOs indicated that qualifying prospects is the most challenging responsibility for their staff. Thirty-seven percent of gift/alumni officers agree. By contrast, only 10% of CAOs and 15% of gift/alumni officer indicate gift solicitation is the most challenging.

Challenges of the New Workplace and Workforce

As educational advancement professionals grappled with the same  challenges facing all industries over the past year and a half, among the issues they encountered is the most effective way to structure their workplace.

At the beginning of the pandemic, educational institutions moved quickly to a fully-remote work environment and according to earlier surveys, by September 2020, only 13% of advancement professionals said they preferred working full-time in their offices. According to the latest survey, that figure has actually declined to around eight-percent.

In contrast, according to the new findings, two-thirds (67%) of advancement professionals say they currently prefer working in a “hybrid” environment vs. 39% who stated as such in the September 2021 survey. In comparison, while 53% of respondents preferred working remotely mostly/all of the time in September 2020, that figure had declined to 25% in the latest survey findings.

When asked what work options are currently available to their advancement staff, 63% of CAOs indicated their staff can choose a hybrid schedule. One-third (34%) were “strongly encouraging their staff to return to the office” full-time, and only 3% were giving their staff the option of working remotely full-time. The hybrid option nearly paralleled the preferences of their staff.

One issue that has emerged from this shift in workplace preferences is how productive staff feel when working remotely or in a hybrid environment compared to how CAOs view their productivity outside of traditional work settings.

According to the latest survey, there is a significant gap between these views on productivity. Only 11% of the gift/alumni officers indicated they were most productive in the office. The majority (61%) indicated they were most productive at home.

In contrast, only a small minority of the CAOs indicated that their staff (12% for gift officers, 8% for alumni officers, and 13% for managers) were more productive at home. Among the other options, between 33% and 49% indicated their staff were more productive in their office.

Another impact of the new work structure has been the adaption and usage of technology for building and qualifying potential donors. According to the new survey, three-quarters (76%) of gift/alumni officers were using remote video (i.e. Zoom, Microsoft teams, etc.,) for donor qualification meetings, and a similar amount (78%) for solicitation meetings. These figures represent a significant growth since the September 2020 survey, when 58% used these platforms sometimes or frequently for qualification meetings, and 65% used them for solicitation purposes.

Like other industries, the educational advancement profession is also feeling the effects of the “great resignation.”

According to the latest survey, sixty-one percent of CAOs at fifty-eight institutions report vacancy rates for gift officers exceeding 10%. Forty-nine percent of these CAOs report vacancy rates for alumni officers exceeding 10%. Thirty-two percent of the CAOs report vacancy rates for gift officers between 11% and 20%, while 18% report greater than 30% vacancy rates for gift officers.

“Educational advancement professionals have done an incredible job over the past two years adapting to highly accelerated changes in the workplace structure while continuing to meet and exceed their financial performance goals,” says Karin George, Managing Principal, Washburn & McGoldrick. “We continue to collaborate with them to ensure they are able to navigate these changes while preparing for the challenges they will encounter moving forward.”

Key Findings

Selected Verbatim Responses

On Staff and Workplace Challenges

“Staff turnover is high because fundraisers have a lot of options right now. That’s a real issue given that we’re mid-campaign.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

“My very best fundraising year was last year when most of my meetings were held virtually. I strongly believe that advancement offices will lose good fundraisers if they do not adapt to post-pandemic realities of flexible working situations.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

“We are telling folks what we want to do regarding return to office and not surveying them, which I think may be a mistake. We are struggling with retention and burnout. Our institution is trying to be sensitive, but I fear we have too much of a one-size fits all approach.” (CAO)

“The lack of empathy and understanding by university and advancement staff about what [professional staff] are juggling and facing has been disappointing. It has created a culture of burnout.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

CAOs on Evaluating Staff Under the Hybrid Work Model

“Development teams need to be out of the office to meet donors. As long as they continue to make visits and secure funding at a similar capacity as when they were in the office, they can work from home. Also, if employees perform better because of an increased sense of work/ life balance, it’s a win for everyone!”

“In the same manner we evaluated staff when they worked entirely in the office. If they are engaging alumni and meeting their goals, then they are effective in their jobs.”

“We are using the same metrics that we would if staff were in the office full-time. Their progress will be measured based on their ability to complete their project in a timely manner and at a level commensurate with past work effort.”

“We really do not have a system in place for evaluation, whether for advancement or the institution. The current hybrid model is not an ideal situation and ideally, we’d have the staff back on campus.”

Gift/Alumni Officers on How They Feel They Should Be Evaluated in Hybrid Work Model

“Honestly, the same way it is in the office. Sometimes I am able to get through more working from home because there are no office distractions or lost time walking across campus for meetings.”

“The same things as if in the office 100%. I have MORE time to work on these things when working a hybrid schedule and remotely because I’m NOT spending my time in a car where I can’t give 100% of my attention to my work because I’m driving.”

“Utilize the same metrics as before pandemic with broader definition of what qualifies as a “visit.” We now use phone calls and zoom conversations if they result in a “move” or significantly advance the philanthropic conversation.”

“The ongoing challenges of the pandemic — including not meeting with prospects face-to-face — is a more significant challenge than the issue of working from home or hybrid. For hybrid work, there may need to be some accounting for the challenges of transitioning between different work environments.”

“We have all been working from home for a year and a half now? I don’t understand why we’re pretending that we can’t do it and be as productive as we would in the office. We literally did it for 18 months. This question has come up a lot in our “hybrid transition” and I honestly find it a bit offensive.”

Biggest Challenges to Advancement Work This Time of Year

“Trying to get campus partners to think innovatively again. Everyone is in the dumps or paralyzed by uncertainty.” (CAO)

“A shift in energy and morale. We are ending a campaign and there is a far-reaching feeling of burnout. The burnout results from not only our work, but the times. We’ll need to find a way to gently push forward while respecting everyone’s personal situation.” (CAO)

“Having a very hard time building a team. Currently have five major openings in department. Everyone — three forward facing staff members are stretched.” (CAO)

“Increased staff burnout and fatigue – from a lingering pandemic, having so many open positions, and the demands of full-time return to work, for many. People are exhausted and see no relief in sight.” (CAO)

“My institution is not yet “out of the woods” with respect to financial fallout from the pandemic. As a result, budgets across campus are impacted and vacant positions have been placed on hold. Additionally, for the few vacant positions deemed essential and therefore able to be filled, recruitment has been a significant challenge.” (CAO)

Most Substantial Change to Your Work This Year (Gift/Alumni Officers)

“Being in the office every day. It is harder to have work-life balance. We exceeded goals last year but were told we were back in office 100%. Shows we didn’t learn anything.”

“The challenge between balancing institutional budgets post-pandemic and finding the resources/time for staff to move forward with innovation and institutional priorities.”

“Adding in-person meetings and events on top of the virtual programming we’ve adapted the last year and a half. Translation = more to do with as many or even fewer people.”

“The lack of flexibility in my office. There is no acknowledgement of the collective global trauma that the world has been through over the last two years. The university doesn’t believe in science and has not taken the pandemic seriously. It is short sighted. Our entire department is burned out and there is turnover.”

“Realization that our institution is not immune to the “Great Resignation” and hiring new staff will be very difficult.”

“Re-engaging donors since COVID. Many have lost almost 2 years of the engagement. Playing catch up for all that was lost during the pandemic without falling victim to burnout.”

Key Recruitment and Retention Strategies for CAOs

“We can recruit and cast a wider net for talent since we know some advancement positions can work for different locations. We are saying upfront that workers have options whether to work remotely.”

“Looking carefully and intentionally at skills and abilities vs. current job descriptions, with the notion of helping people use the majority of their strengths in their work. Being generally as flexible as we can with schedules and time.”

“We have reimagined the hiring process, first by creating a new hiring manual and second a hiring committee. We have enlisted a search firm for a number of director level positions. We are promoting from within when applicable.”

“Flexible schedule or work location opportunities. Communicating clear paths for advancement.”


The WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK survey on advancement leaders was conducted online during the period of October 18 – November 2, 2021, with 455 respondents representing 119 institutions across the nation. The schools surveyed ranged in size from small private liberal arts colleges to independent schools and institutions to state and private universities offering masters and doctoral degrees, including eleven HBCUs. The margin of error was +/- 4.1% with a 95% confidence level.

Participating Institutions

  • Academy of the Holy Names*
  • Amherst College
  • Appalachian State University
  • Bates College
  • Bentley University
  • Bethune-Cookman University
  • Binghamton University
  • Bowdoin College
  • Bowie State University
  • Brewster Academy*
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Bucknell University
  • California State University- Chico
  • Carroll University
  • Choate Rosemary Hall*
  • Colby College
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • College of Wooster
  • Colorado College
  • Coppin State University
  • Davidson College
  • Denison University
  • Dickinson College
  • Fairfield College Preparatory School*
  • Fairfield University
  • Florida International University
  • Fordham University
  • Franklin & Marshall College
  • George Washington University
  • Georgetown University
  • Gettysburg College
  • Harvard-Westlake School*
  • Haverford College
  • Howard University
  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Ithaca College
  • Jackson State University
  • Kingswood Oxford School
  • Lafayette College
  • Lenoir-Rhyne University
  • Longwood University
  • Loyola University Maryland
  • Lycoming College
  • Marist College
  • Middlebury College
  • Miss Porter’s School
  • Moses Brown School*
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Nazareth College
  • New England College
  • Norfolk State University
  • North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University
  • North Carolina School of Science and Math
  • North Carolina State University
  • Northeastern University
  • Ohio University
  • Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Philander Smith College
  • Philips Academy – Andover*
  • Plymouth State University
  • Pomona College
  • Portland State University Foundation
  • Prairie View A&M University
  • Providence College
  • Quinnipiac University
  • Rollins College
  • Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey
  • Saint Anselm College
  • Scripps College
  • Siena College
  • Smith College
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Southern University and A&M College
  • Southwestern University
  • St. Andrew’s School*
  • St. Francis College
  • St. John Fisher College
  • St. Lawrence University
  • Stonehill College
  • SUNY Potsdam
  • Swarthmore College
  • Syracuse University
  • Texas Christian University
  • Texas Tech University
  • The Catholic University of America
  • The Governor’s Academy*
  • The Lawrenceville School
  • The University of Baltimore
  • The University of Maryland – Baltimore
  • Towson University
  • Trinity College (CT)
  • Trinity University (TX)
  • Union College
  • University of California Santa Barbara
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Chicago-Booth School of Business
  • University of Houston
  • University of Maryland – Baltimore County
  • University of Maryland – College Park
  • University of Missouri System
  • University of New Hampshire
  • University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  • University of North Carolina – Charlotte
  • University of North Carolina – Greensboro
  • University of North Carolina – Wilmington
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Rhode Island
  • University of Richmond
  • Valparaiso University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Vassar College
  • Villanova University
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  • Washington University – Saint Louis
  • Wesleyan University
  • Western Carolina University
  • William & Mary
  • Winston-Salem State University
  • Woodberry Forest School*

* Independent School

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