September 2020 Survey of Advancement Professionals

The WASHBURN & MCGOLDRICK September 2020 survey of advancement professionals is the third in our Advancement Moving Forward series on the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The first two surveys in this series were conducted in April 2020 and June 2020. Details about the methodology and participating institutions are found at the end of this report.

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MAJOR FINDINGS: confidence


  • Currently, 40% of advancement professionals are confident about reaching FY21 fundraising goals. In June 2020 we found 22% of the respondents were confident about making their fundraising goals. Currently, only 14% are without confidence about making annual goals  – a drop since June’s reported 28%.  The most common response continues to be uncertainty, as 46% of respondents to the current September 2020 survey report they are uncertain about making their FY21 goals.
  • Confidence was highest among advancement leaders, as 59% of people at the CAO/VP/AVP level were confident about reaching their FY21 goals.  In June only 17% of these leaders reported they were confident about reaching FY21 goals.
  • Reflective of the current increase in confidence, respondents reported high levels of confidence in their ability to do certain aspects of their job during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Nearly eight out of ten respondents reported they were confident engaging (77%), connecting individually with alumni/prospects/donors (78%) and making the case for institutional priorities (78%).  Significantly fewer were confident in their ability to qualify prospects (48%) or close gifts (53%) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall confidence: April to September 2020



  • The current September 2020 survey introduced “social/racial justice” as a fundraising priority.  This survey reveals a high number of participants reporting increased emphasis on fundraising for social/racial justice (85%), tied with increased emphasis on financial aid (87%) or more specifically, emergency student support. The shift of the remaining fundraising priorities continues to show the same pattern found in the June 2020 survey. Capital projects continues to be de-emphasized, as 44% of the respondents report a de-emphasis on this priority (comparable to 41% in June who reported a de-emphasis).
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues (DEI) are on the minds of many advancement professionals.  When asked a general open-ended question about how their institutions are responding to the pandemic or what they are hearing from donors and alumni, 46% of all respondents offered unsolicited comments about DEI.  DEI appeared in one question as an option in the list of fundraising priorities, but no other question asked directly about it. The large number of unsolicited responses to this topic suggests this issue matters to many advancement professionals.
  • Respondents offered a variety of examples about how their institutions were addressing DEI issues.  Some of these included increased transparency, Presidential updates to the entire community, campus conversations, developing scholarship opportunities, Presidential initiatives and task forces on race, power and privilege with diverse representation, intentional programming that speak to DEI issues, developing future-facing diversity programs, unified curriculums, out-reach to the local community, and DEI teams with direct access to leadership.
  • While some gift officers report frustration that these initiatives have not translated into giving opportunities, others also report that donors are looking for ways to support these efforts. The comments make it clear that DEI will be an ongoing priority.  As one advancement leader stared “DEI impact will likely (hopefully!) be more and longer lasting that the impact of the pandemic.”



  • Seventy-seven percent (77%)  of respondents reported they are currently working remotely, and 16% are splitting their time between home and the office.  Only seven percent are currently working in the office.  When asked where they would prefer to work if given an option, 49% still want to work remotely and 36% want to split their time. Only a small minority (15%) want to work in the office full-time.
  • The preference for either working remotely or splitting time between the home and office is evident among both gift officers and advancement leadership.  Only 13% of the gift officers want to return to the office full-time, and only 36% of CAOs/VPs/AVPs report the same.
  • Forty percent of the comments mention a COVID-19 cure or vaccine as the reason for a preference for working at home or splitting their time. One Vice President for Advancement stated, “Every time I am on campus, I feel I am putting my health at risk.”
  • The most challenging aspect of working remotely has been the isolation and lack of connection with colleagues.  Despite these limitations, the comments suggest remote work has not had a negative impact of productivity.  As one Vice President for Advancement noted “I see some value to coming to the office from time to time for specific activity or meeting but otherwise I believe I am more effective at home, and the Zoom meetings I have are nearly as effective as in-person meetings.”


  • 51% of respondents report that they use a combination of video conferencing and phone calls to qualify prospects. Fifty-four percent (54%) report they are using this combination for solicitation.
  • 42% report they never or rarely use video conferencing for qualification and 35% report they never or rarely use video conferencing for solicitation. Given the overall trend to pivot to online platforms, as reported in the comments, this lack of use is surprising.



  • In June 2020 23% of respondents reported “we have already recovered” and 40% reported it would take up to a year to recover.   By September, this optimism had fallen, as only 8% reported “we have already recovered” and recovery within a year fell to 29%. In September, the most common response (43%) predicts a longer one to two-year recovery period, an increase from 19% in June.
  • “Recovery” may not be the most accurate way to describe changes to advancement.  Respondents suggest advancement staff are embracing “adaptation” to the new demands placed on advancement as budgets and priorities change.

    I would not say we have necessarily “recovered” but we have certainly “adapted”. (GIFT OFFICER)

    I think it is hard to quantify recovery in this sense. Adaptation is different than recovery. There may be elements of our past practices to which we never return. (GIFT OFFICER)

    Annual fund, particularly unrestricted giving, have fallen off, and alumni relations will need to continue to re-invent itself. (CAO/VP/AVP)


  • Ninety-eight percent (98%) of CAOs/VPs/AVPs and 92% of gift officers report that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on their work.  The percent of CAO/VPs/AVPs reporting this opinion has not changed significantly since June 2020, while the percent of gift officers reporting the same has risen significantly from 79% to 92%.
  • Respondents report that the most substantial changes will be balancing virtual and in-person prospect/donor meetings, reaching out to new prospects using technology, less emphasis on travel, redefining contacts and engagement, and how teams interact within and beyond their institutions.

MAJOR FINDINGS: commitment


  • In any survey, themes emerge in both the quantitative and qualitive responses.  The September 2020 survey reveals that advancement professionals are both optimistic about fundraising and realistic about the challenges which lay ahead.  Out of 755 comments provided by 430 respondents, the following capture that spirit.

    We all have a very tough road ahead of us, especially financially.  I hope we all survive and that a lot of good can come from this experience. (GIFT OFFICER)

    Our institution has a chance of emerging stronger from this pandemic and raise double its last campaign. (GIFT OFFICER)

    Very proud of my institution’s response to the pandemic and placing science, health, and safety foremost. (GIFT OFFICER)

    Our institution responded brilliantly to the crisis, orchestrating a comprehensive (to date successful) return to campus, but at the cost of leadership’s attention. There will need to be a strategic and psychological culture shift in leadership to move priorities back to core mission and away from crisis fundraising and communication. (GIFT OFFICER)

    I believe our institution is not unique in our struggles to pivot to a more digital environment. Being able to manage our digital engagement strategically will be the next significant challenge. (GIFT OFFICER)

    These issues have captured the majority of our focus. I think this is necessary, but it can also detract from the overall mission of what we need to accomplish. We are walking a tightrope in managing and addressing both issues. (CAO/VP/AVP)

    We are continuously reminded (in many ways) that we have a lot to learn. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Fundraising Priorities


Gift Officers: Selected verbatim responses

In terms of DEI, I appreciated the direct messaging of the importance of creating a safe and inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff. I feel like the messaging from the President in the late spring lacked a call to action for alumni. (GIFT OFFICER)

Staff needs training to talk about DEI initiatives on campus. (GIFT OFFICER)

The only thing about the DEI opportunities is that these were started WAY too late. We should have been doing the for years. We’ve been reactive as opposed to proactive. (GIFT OFFICER)

The pandemic has driven a greater level of communication and transparency. That same level of transparency hasn’t appeared in DEI conversations, but I think it needs to in order to keep alumni engaged and repair relationships with alumni of color. (GIFT OFFICER)

The pandemic was synchronous with #Black Lives Matter and social justice movements across the globe in the aftermath of the unfortunate death of George Floyd, Daniel Prude, etc. We’ve made our philanthropic bread and butter on an exclusively Caucasian, wealthy, conservative donor base for far too long. Population demographics have changed and will continue to change! Philanthropy has not kept up with this evolution (GIFT OFFICER)

I’m proud to work for an institution that is moving forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m optimistic that this will help us live in a more just world. (GIFT OFFICER)

Advancement Leadership: Selected verbatim responses

Faculty and staff across campus have embarked on a year of anti-racism learning groups with a unified curriculum that is making us better at addressing these issues. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I am glad to see our University taking on DEI by building a committee of faculty, staff, alumni, and parents. They picked the right person to run the committee. I feel like the University is listening and paying attention to the current needs of the community with a focus on change. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I believe our overall Advancement response / adaptation has been very strong. Our institution’s response on diversity, equity, and inclusion has been very slow. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We are about to begin discussions with our various boards as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We had presentations previously, but there will be renewed emphasis on the boards as champions of this institutional priority. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We currently have students on campus, but it’s a fragile existence. We are doing a lot of work as an institution around DEI and it’s a focus of work in our division. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We have been working on our DEI work in our student and campus adult sector for many years. Now we are including graduates in that work and will make a substantial investment of money and time over the next 3-5 years. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We have greatly increased emphasis on awareness and training. Have added chair of Diversity Task Force to the President’s Leadership Team (CAO/VP/AVP)

DEI impact will likely (hopefully!) be more and longer lasting than the impact of the pandemic (CAO/VP/AVP)

Remote Work

Work Settings

Prefer working in the office (selected verbatim comments)

COVID cure/vaccine or pandemic (87 mentions from GIFT OFFICERS or CAOs/VPs/AVPs)

I had already been working remotely for 5 years and was ready to make a change where I could be in an office more. When COVID hit and everyone was remote, I became more aware of how isolating and energy draining working from home is for me. I need people energy and now know I need to work to change that moving forward. (GIFT OFFICER)

To me, there is value to feeling the rhythm of an academic year and the energy of the students. I understand why we are not able to be in our offices, but I miss being on campus. (GIFT OFFICER)

I’m ready to go back! (GIFT OFFICER)

If my colleagues on the senior staff returned full time, I’d be uncomfortable splitting my time. Currently, most are working remotely more than I do, so it’s not an issue. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Having more people to talk to in the office besides myself! (CAO/VP/AVP)

Working from home exclusively was taking its toll, I enjoy the change of scenery and being reconnected with the physical campus and some of my colleagues who are also returning to the office part time. (GIFT OFFICER)

The thing I miss most about being in an office is a stronger sense of community. That is hard to replicate via Zoom. (CAO/VP/AVP)

An end to COVID. I would rather work in the office all the time or nearly all the time if it was safe to do so and I could be surrounded by colleagues. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Prefer splitting time between home and office (selected verbatim comments)

I like having the flexibility of working from home but going into the office on days that are necessary for in-person meetings, etc. Most of my work can be completed remotely, so I don’t feel as though it has impacted my productivity. (GIFT OFFICER)

Having the flexibility to work from home and go the office as needed has been tremendous relief for my family and thus my motivation and productivity. (GIFT OFFICER)\

I have learned to appreciate working from home though I do miss our team and incidental conversations through which I learn quite a bit. I hope when this is over we are able to adopt a more flexible work schedule (though our office is incredibly understanding when flexibility is needed) (GIFT OFFICER)

I think there is value in human interaction in the office…and I think it’s important. I also feel now that there is a reasonable balance between that interaction and working remotely so to have a balance between work/home/motivation. (GIFT OFFICER)

I have found that I have much less distraction from my home office but miss the daily collaborations with colleagues. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I actually like working from home but miss the social exchange of the office. (CAO/VP/AVP)

If I could get all the documents I needed to sign and if I did not have internal HR issues, I would work from home all the time. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I see some value to coming to the office from time to time for specific activity or meeting but otherwise I believe I am more effective at home and the zoom meeting I have are near as effective as in person meetings.. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Prefer working remotely (selected verbatim comments)

With all things being equal (# of active cases, ability to social distance, etc…), to me it is about flexibility. There are days when being in the office would be helpful, and days when being at home is the best option. (GIFT OFFICER)

As a development professional, I work can literally done wherever. At home, I’m more focused, despite the number of Zoom meetings, with distractions. (GIFT OFFICER)

Pre-COVID I accomplished more working from home. I continue working well from home. However, I do miss meeting and talking ad-hoc with my colleagues and the general energy of the college campus. I have to work harder to bring this “story” to my prospects. (GIFT OFFICER)

There is nothing that would change my mind. I 100% prefer to work from home. I feel better protected, I feel more productive, my mental health has improved. (GIFT OFFICER)

Every time I am on campus, I feel I am putting my health at risk. (CAO/VP/AVP)

If I’m needed in the office for whatever reason I will be there. My preference, however, is to work from home. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I’m really fine with either but prefer working from home. I would change my mind if the office wasn’t equipped or open to video meetings. (CAO/VP/AVP)

With young children at home, the ability to work remotely is a tremendous help.. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Prospect Qualification During a Pandemic

Gift Solicitation During a Pandemic

Time to recover

WE HAVE ALREADY RECOVERED (selected verbatim comments)

I wouldn’t say we have necessarily “recovered” but we have certainly “adapted” (GIFT OFFICER)

We didn’t miss a beat (GIFT OFFICER)

We have been able to pivot to remote contacts/visits. However, we do expect that it will negatively effect some major gift solicitations. (GIFT OFFICER)

We modified our physical processes so that they can be done remotely using digital resources. (GIFT OFFICER)

We have adapted all of our work to be remote and it seems to be working as well as possible. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We continue to solicit donors. We are planning our work, donor engagement, virtually. (CAO/VP/AVP)

UP TO A YEAR TO Recover (selected verbatim comments)

It has been a slow process though as waiting on campus to set guidelines and make decisions related to events (gathering size) and related activities (GIFT OFFICER)

I believe our alumni have adjusted to the COVID-19 environment but now the focus is back to financial markets and personal situations revolving their thoughts on giving. (GIFT OFFICER)

We have actually learned a lot about virtual events and engagement from this experience. Once restrictions are lifted on campus and around the country, we should be able to start hosting events again almost immediately (GIFT OFFICER)

Donors are giving, but will need to realign funding (GIFT OFFICER)

Donors who postponed closing gifts because of COVID are now waiting for the outcome of the election. This is pushing back the ‘recovery’ rate for us. (GIFT OFFICER)

I think it is hard to quantify recovery in this sense. Adaptation is different than recovery. There may be elements of our past practices to which we never return. (GIFT OFFICER)

We are technically recovered, in that we are back in action; however, the results of our efforts restricted to zoom, phone and emails and without face to face visits is yet to be determined. (GIFT OFFICER)

Have to rebuild the pipeline and adjust for 5% budget cuts (CAO/VP/AVP)

More than a Year to recover (selected verbatim comments)

One to two years right now but if things do not improve going into March 2021 there will be a huge change in our landscape. (GIFT OFFICER – One to 2 years)

Due to lower productivity and activity in the spring with the number of visits and events there will be a lag in the volume of commitments with less engaged prospects. We are also down staff with a hiring freeze, it will take time to ramp back up. (GIFT OFFICER – One to 2 years)

I believe the impacts of this pandemic will be felt for years beyond this pandemic, ultimately changing everyone’s approach to how they operate and interact with others. (GIFT OFFICER – One to 2 years)

I don’t think we know the extent of the economic damage, and I doubt that we will see a sustained run of the Dow, which often is the single best indicator of philanthropy. (GIFT OFFICER – One to 2 years)

Annual fund, particularly unrestricted giving, have fallen off, and alumni relations will need to continue to re-invent itself. (CAO/VP/AVP – One to 2 years)

It took the Annual Fund four years to recover from the 2008-09 recession. I don’t think we are out of the woods yet and it will be a long slow recovery. (GIFT OFFICER – More than 3 years)

Long-term impact

The most substantial change going forward?

Gift Officers: selected verbatim comments

By moving our events, meetings, and programs to a virtual format, we have been able to engage more alumni, many of whom live at a distance and would rarely if ever come back to campus. (GIFT OFFICER)

Continued leveraging of technology (Zoom, phone calls) to move relationships with donors forward more quickly than in-person meetings. (GIFT OFFICER)

Donors will be less likely to give to funds that not necessities. (GIFT OFFICER)

I worry that travel budgets will be slashed with the argument that solicitations can happen via technology (GIFT OFFICER)

Hopefully this will be an opportunity to find a balance between virtual and in-person engagement moving forward. (GIFT OFFICER)During the pandemic we began engaging our alumni in creative, virtual ways, and I realized how often we focus on the alumni who can come to events in our region or our state (GIFT OFFICER)

There will no longer be the excuse of, “I’ll see them the next time I am in town.” (GIFT OFFICER)

More and more virtual programs – removing ourselves from the constant challenge of “why won’t anyone come to our awesome cocktail party on Thursday night in NYC?” question. (GIFT OFFICER)

Advancement Leadership: selected verbatim comments

During this period we are focused on restructuring our alumni relations program. The focus on alumni engagement I believe will ultimately benefit our overall fundraising program. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I question whether or not we will ever return to significant face to face visits. (CAO/VP/AVP)

I will use Zoom more often to connect my donors/prospects with our students/faculty/programs. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Our Advancement team is becoming more adept at and committed to shared technology for executing our work that goes beyond just final document-sharing and storage. There is more cross-division and cross-campus focus on executing shared purpose and goals; greater transparency about goal-setting and prospect pipeline projections; and I expect and hope that this will remain. (CAO/VP/AVP)

The way we interact within the university and externally. We will more closely evaluate the need for an in-person experience. This pandemic accelerated our move into the digital engagement realm. (CAO/VP/AVP)

We will use technology to connect with donors and to solicit gifts. Zoom is here to stay. (CAO/VP/AVP)

Sustained use of videoconferencing technology. More overall focus on funding initiatives that speak to the future of the higher education economic model. Greater discipline in fundraising that matches the fiscal operations and needs of institutions. (CAO/VP/AVP)

A greater ability to engage a wide range of prospects through virtual programming. (CAO/VP/AVP)


  • The current survey was sent on September 10th to 1,103 Chief Advancement Officers, Vice Presidents for Advancement, AVPs, Directors of Development, major gift officers (school/center-based, central, and regional) and alumni relations officers at 66 universities, colleges, and independent schools throughout the United States. The survey closed on September 22nd.
  • Responses were received from 430 individuals representing 59 institutions (39% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.7% at 95% confidence level).
  • The June survey had 386 respondents (38% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.9% at a 95% confidence level). Results are available here.
  • The April 2020 survey had 416 respondents (42% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.7% at 95% confidence level). Results are available here.

Participating Institutions

Detailed Tables

Contact Information