January 2021 Survey of Advancement Professionals

The WASHBURN & MCGOLDRICK January 2021 survey of advancement professionals is the fourth in our Advancement Moving Forward series on the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The first three surveys in this series were conducted in April 2020, June 2020 and September 2020.

Details about the methodology, a list of participating institutions, and detailed tables of the results are found at the end of this report.

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MAJOR FINDINGS: confidence grows

“I’m very grateful we are in a strong financial and market position with strong leadership. I am confident we will weather this storm and take advantage of opportunities it provides.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

  • Currently, 65% of advancement professionals are confident about reaching FY21 fundraising goals. This continues the upward trend which has been seen since the beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020 and June 2020 we found only 22% and 17% of the respondents, respectively, were confident about making their fundraising goals. This significantly increased to 40% in September and by January 2021 again there was a significant increase in confidence to the current level of 65%.
  • Lack of confidence has also steadily declined since April 2020 when we found 43% were not confident about making their FY20 goals. This lack of confidence proved to be accurate as the CASE Voluntary Support of Higher Education report for 2019-20 shows overall giving to higher education declined nearly three percent from the previous year.1 This was the first decline in support to higher education since 2010.
  • Currently, only seven percent lack confidence in making their FY21 annual goals.

1 Source: The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (2021, February). Voluntary Support of Education: Research Brief Key Findings 2019-20.

This overall increase in confidence is due mainly to the steady increase in confidence among Gift/Alumni Officers. After a period of low confidence in April and June 2020, confidence among advancement leaders reached 59% in September and is currently 66%. It took until the January 2021 survey for the gap of confidence between advancement leadership and Gift/Alumni Officers to dissolve. The level of confidence among Gift/Alumni Officers increased significantly from 39% in September to 62% in January.

FUNDRAISING PRIORITIES: CAPITAL PROJECTS RETURN

“The wellness check-in conversations are really over now, and people are open to having giving conversations which is great. Having capital projects to talk about has provided some excitement both on and off campus.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

  • For the first time since the question was posed to Chief Advancement Officers in June 2020, support for capital projects has returned as a top priority. De-emphasized in both June 2020 and September 2020, capital projects currently ranks among the top three priorities as reported by CAOs.
  • The other top priorities, financial aid and unrestricted operating support, have continually been emphasized since June 2020.

MAJOR FINDINGS: “ZOOM FATIGUE”

“Zoom fatigue needs to be addressed – particularly the hours of internal meetings.
It burns me out and is affecting my health (eyes, posture, movement). My institution has not addressed it.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Zoom is great and works well with existing donor relationships. It is not good for creating relationships, as it can’t recreate sitting with people and getting to know them.” (VP/AVP)

  • Zoom and other video platforms (Webex, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams) dominate the workday of both advancement leaders and Gift/Alumni Officers.
  • CAOs, VPs, and AVPs spend 6.6 hours on average per day communicating with donors, prospects, University leadership, colleagues or staff. Within that time over four hours per day are spent on-line with their colleagues or staff.
  • In comparison, Gift/Alumni Officers spend 4.6 hours on average per day on video calls. The difference between the advancement leaders and the Gift/Alumni Officers is statistically significant (p <.0001) and primarily due to the time spent communicating with their colleagues or staff (4.2 hours vs. 2.3 hours per day)

  • When asked about ”Zoom fatigue,” there is a statistically significant difference (p <.0001) between the responses from Gift/Alumni Officers and advancement leaders. Half of the Gift/Alumni Officers (50%) report they are bothered by “Zoom fatigue” on a daily basis, while 78% of the advancement leaders report they are frequently bothered by it.
  • “Zoom fatigue” is second only to social and political unrest for which 79% of the respondents reported stress. It should be noted that the January 2021 survey was launched shortly after the January 6th violence in Washington, DC and during the same week as the US Presidential inauguration on January 20th.
  • Four out of ten respondents report difficulties handling both home and work responsibilities or finding time for themselves for family and friends. Approximately, a third of both Gift/Alumni Officers and advancement leadership report being bothered by concerns about health, safety, isolation or boredom.

MAJOR FINDINGS: REMOTE AND SPLIT WORK SCHEDULES

“A key challenge as the pandemic eases is/will be getting staff to return to the office. A significant number have decided they prefer working from home, but that is not what they were hired to do. We have suffered from communication, group problem-solving and innovation and motivation lapses.” (CAO)

“I am trying to take the long view, which means providing maximum flexibility for my team to support them throughout this time. Want to retain them so we are strong post-pandemic.” (CAO)


  • Both the September 2020 and January 2021 surveys asked the respondents to indicate where they were working and where they would prefer to work if given a choice after the pandemic. The September 2020 survey indicated that 77% were working most or all the time at home (see detailed tables at the end of this report). An additional 16% were spilitting their time between the home and the office, and only seven percent were in the office.
  • The January 2021 survey indicates an increase in the percent of people working at home (87%, up from 77% in September) and an equal decline in the people splitting their time (6% in January 2021, down 16% in September).
  • There is a significant difference in the percent who are currently working at home (87%) compared to those who would prefer to work at home (40%). Yet 38% percent want to split their time between home and office in the future, compared to six percent who are currently splitting their time.
  • Finally, the minority of the respondents (22%) want to return to the office after the pandemic compared to the seven percent currently working most or all of their time in the office.

  • Working a split schedule is equally appealing to both gift/alumni officers and advancement leaders. Nearly 40% of these two groups would like to work a split schedule after the pandemic.
  • Beyond this similarity, there is a dramatic difference between these two groups. While almost half (45%) of CAOs, VPs, and AVPs want to work in the office most or full-time, only 17% of the Gift/Alumni Officers want to return to the office. Forty-five percent of Gift/Alumni Officers want to continue working remotely. The preferences at each end of this work-preference spectrum are mirror images between gift/alumni officers and advancement leaders.

MAJOR FINDINGS: QUALIFICATION, ENGAGEMENT AND THE PIPELINE

“The past few months have been tough for those of us managing frontline fundraisers and our own pipelines. There are many days I need to put my best foot forward as a motivator knowing my work is suffering in order to keep morale moving in a positive direction.” (VP/AVP)

“My colleagues all seem engaged as best they can be, and we are raising money. Our challenges are the same in that we struggle with how to best engage with our existing prospects. Forming new relationships is even harder but not impossible.” (Gift Officer)

“We have received positive feedback on the ways we are keeping alumni and parents informed. Creatively using the virtual world has positioned us well with our key constituents and will be an element we continue to utilize into the future.” (VP/AVP)

  • In March 2020 respondents were asked to indicate what elements of the soliciation cycle they expected to be the most challenging during the pandemic. During those early months of the pandemic, advancement professionals overwhelmingly indicated that asking for gifts (61%) and closing gifts (58%) would be the most challenging in the upcoming months. Only one-third indicated that qualification, getting appointments or engaging prospects would be the biggest challenge.
  • The January 2021 survey reveals how qualification/ getting appointments and engagement have become the most challenging elements in the solicitation cycle. Currently 69% of the respondents report challenges with qualification and 41% report challenges with engagement. The much anticipated challenges of asking for and closing a gift have become significantly less of a concern. These concerns are shared equally by Gift/Alumni Officers and advancement leaders.

  • Corresponding to concerns about qualification and engagement, building a pipeline of new prospective donors is the number one concern of advancement professionals.2 Sixty-eight percent of the respondents indicate a frequent concern about building a pipeline and 66% are concerned about keeping the fundraising momentum going forward. Concern about keeping momentum moving forward has consistently been a serious concern since March 2020.
  • Virtual engagement with constituents and donors has also remained a concern since March 2020. Concerns about communicating with constituents and donors increased significantly from 31% to 44% since last March. There was also a significant increase (11% to 29%) in the percent of respondents who report concerns about staying up-to-date on their institutional priorities.

2 NOTE: “Building a pipeline” was added to the January 2021 survey.

MAJOR FINDINGS: BUDGETS, METRICS, AND RETAINING STAFF

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was more concern for employee well-being and more of a message of focusing on outreach, attempts, etc. regardless of outcome, whereas now it’s more about hitting goals and metrics.” (Gift Officer)

“Overall, I would say things are good. We did an internal survey prior to the holidays and 90% of our respondents felt overwhelmed with workload, balance of home/work life and achieving individual metrics.” (CAO)

  • Budget freezes and staff reductions are the leading work-related concerns for both Gift/Alumni Officers and advancement leadership. In addition, CAOs, VPs, and AVPs are more likely (53%) to be concerned about this issue than Gift/Alumni Officers (45%). Advancement leaders (38%) are also much more likely than Gift/Alumni Officers (20%) to express concerns about retaining staff.
  • Meeting performance metrics and feeling distracted are also among the top work-related concerns. Gift/Alumni Officers and advancement leaders report an equal level of concern about these two issues.
  • Performance metrics have been an area of concern since March 2020, when 58% reported of respondents anticipated changing gift officer performance metrics for the remainder of FY20.

MAJOR FINDINGS: SELF-CARE AND QUALITY OF LIFE

“It’s hard to find the time to do so, but I’m staying hydrated and trying to unplug from the devices as often as I can.” (CAO)

“As the pandemic drags on, it is becoming more and more evident how weary we are all feeling, and yet the work must go on.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I would have gone absolutely mad if it weren’t for my bike. It’s awesome to work from home and take a spin class when I’m feeling antsy in the middle of the day, and then get back to work more focused, having gotten out the jitters.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I’m taking it one day at a time. Some days are good, some not as good, but I am trying not to be too hard on myself and treat each day as a fresh start” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

  • Self-care is an important part of dealing with the stresses and challenges of working during the pandemic. Nearly 60% of the 506 respondents provided insights into how they are managing their lives day-to-day.
  • Exercise is the most common method of self-care. Taking time to walk every day, running, and yoga are the most common form of exercise.
  • Working during the pandemic also seems to have made people aware of the need to maintain balance in their lives and establish boundaries around their workday. Remote work is especially challenging to achieving balance. Respondents recognize they have to make conscious decisions to ”unplug” or ”walk away” at times.

SELECTED COMMENTS: CONFIDENCE AND LEADERSHIP

“I’m very proud of how hard our teams are working under continued strains that are unparalleled.”
(CAO)

“I am grateful to University leadership for prioritizing employees and jobs. Our students have done a fantastic job with health measures, and university leadership models positive behaviors.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I am proud of my institution and have confidence in its leadership. I am steadied by their continued ability to pivot and make decisions timely and transparently and communicate those decisions.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I think our institution is doing a great job managing the pandemic, much better than most. Our Advancement division has great support from our President. We are encouraged to do self-care, and our challenges are respected, understood and help is offered where possible.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I am so lucky to work for an amazing college, with the freedom to lead my team. We have been focusing on mental and emotional health, vulnerability, authenticity, and creating a safe space twice a week for us to come together and talk about how the world’s challenges are impacting our work. This practice has allowed us to connect with our alumni and parents more authentically and move the conversation to impact/solution in a very genuine way (rather than ‘we need donations to stay afloat’).”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I am very impressed with our culture and the thoughtfulness of our president and our senior leadership conveyed in their messages to the staff. I also am impressed with their financial leadership throughout this pandemic. I am so thankful I have a job.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I think our institution has pivoted and adjusted tremendously during these challenging times. The leadership has provided ongoing, current and positive correspondence and interaction with the entire team.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“This has obviously been unprecedented times, but it has created opportunities to think outside of the box and create tools for the future. My institution has been very supportive in our efforts to do what we have to do workwise and health wise.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Morale and support of institutional leadership is dismal. It’s hard to really know what is happening.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Overall I think my institution is doing an incredible job with the flip to virtual – both in terms of academics and in terms of the general running of the institution. It has been great to see cross-collaboration work between departments.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Donors, colleagues and alumni are consistently expressing admiration for how College leadership is navigating the pandemic. There seems to be a high degree of consensus that the College has made smart financial moves, has kept enrollment steady and students on campus safely. The pandemic has raised the knowledge of and respect from alumni for the cabinet beyond the president (Provost, CFO, VP Advancement, VP Enrollment), which gives me optimism for post-pandemic fundraising.”
(VP/AVP)

SELECTED COMMENTS: REMOTE WORK

“I’m very proud of how hard our teams are working under continued strains that are unparalleled.”
(CAO)

“I hope my institution continues to let employees work from home even after the pandemic subsides. It would attract more talent and lessen environmental impact.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“My institution is doing a great job keeping people remote for as long as possible.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“My institution is handling the pandemic and remote working very well. It is like we haven’t skipped a beat.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Leadership has kept us well-informed about challenges, rising costs due to COVID They care about us and our well-being. They have been very flexible….not demanding you come in the office if you are not comfortable, as long as we are getting our work done, and we are. This means a lot to me and employees.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Relationships with colleagues and direct reports is different in the virtual world, but there are some upsides. While we all miss the chance meeting in the hall, the fact that we cannot count on that has given us the chance to be more intentional in bringing colleagues into the loop to seek input. The other upside is that we have had no choice but to innovate, which has been scary but also exhilarating.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I am a mother of two young children who have been ‘remote’ from their elementary school for nearly three months. This is by the School’s choosing, not my personal choosing. Though I believe my supervisor and institution are supportive of this predicament, I am concerned about long-term growth opportunities within the profession. I expect to have a “mediocre” year. Will that prevent mothers, like myself, from having job promotions in the future?”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“It seems that many of my colleagues who travel normally as part of their fundraising work would prefer to work from home and travel and have one or two days a week committed on campus to in person meetings with colleagues.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“While I love working from home, I do miss some of the casual brainstorming that happens with colleagues when you’re working in the office. We’re implementing weekly Monday morning team check-ins which I hope will help!”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

SELECTED COMMENTS: QUALIFICATION, ENGAGEMENT AND THE PIPELINE

“Pipeline is the biggest concern; however, I do feel “we are all in the same boat” which is calming and concerning at the same time. Also, how will the next 18 months of our economy impact giving for this and next year?”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“We are having huge response to virtual events from alumni and donors. Other qualification efforts have not been successful. Gift conversations that began before the lock-down have generally moved forward, though a few have stopped cold with no response to outreach. The gift officers are losing the pipeline of student stories which greatly enrich our conversations with donors.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Alumnae have been supportive during this time when we initiated special campaigns for COVID-related tuition relief donations. We have also had good luck engaging them in a variety of virtual events; consequently, Annual Fund participation from alums is up.”
(CAO)

“We have struggled in the best circumstances to engage donors in ways that lead to philanthropy. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem for our institution. It also appears to be stalling the progression of leadership annual fund. We have seen a reduction in annual giving, especially at leadership levels, and I have concerns about the impact on the next several years of major gifts.”
(CAO)

“I believe our pendulum is centering, meaning we are starting to communicate not on socio-political issues such as Black Lives Matters, but rather more on the day-to-day and big picture issues that are assuring to our major gift donor base.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I feel like we need to talk more about how weird it feels at times to try to be working like normal when things are far from normal. For example, it’s unsettling to reach out for a visit and have someone respond they can’t because their grandson just died of COVID.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“It has been a blessing to be able to engage constituents globally. The ”norm” now is video contact, therefore it is far more comfortable and typical to reach alumnae via video, thus increasing engagement.”
(Alumni Officer)

“It’s slow going; difficult to engage with alumni without getting them to campus and/or events; virtual world only goes so far.” (Alumni Officer)

“Our alumni are very engaged with our virtual programming. I am impressed with what we have been able to accomplish and how many we have been able to engage.”
(Alumni Officer)

“The work can still get done. Strategies and norms have been challenged and changed, but givers will give. Personalize the engagement strategy and people will respond.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“We have been working hard to engage alumni and donors across the spectrum. Despite our thoughtful efforts, we have still seen a decrease in dollars and participation. This is concerning as our participation is already lower than our peers, and this could grow that gap.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“We’ve seen fairly encouraging giving by the numbers this past year, but I worry that we are not paying enough attention to donor retention. Donors are giving me 20-30 minutes maximum typically for a phone or Zoom conversation, as they are typically overwhelmed with virtual meetings in their own work lives, and the needs of the college are less of a priority in a time of multiple crises at once. It is difficult to try to ”read the room” and be sensitive to the very personal, deep things my donors are going through while balancing my responsibility to promote the college I work for. For example, the week of the Presidential election, I was asked to email all of my portfolio members to invite them to a virtual event about new budget-enhancing initiative. This was days before a very contentious election, and most of my donors live in Washington DC – therefore the fate of their jobs was likely to be tied to which administration would be elected or whether or not the Senate/House would flip. It was difficult, because I wanted to do my job and promote the college, but I also felt that it was awkward to ask them to care about this program in light of the current events at that time. I still struggle with this, as we continue to live through multiple crises at once. It has become harder to meet new donors without in-person opportunities to gather and meet. But it has been nice to see more donors engaging in virtual events, and in some cases, donors are more able to speak with me virtually due to having young children or remote geographic location. I look forward to the day when we have the option to meet in person OR meet virtually when needed.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“In the midst of all the changes and uncertainty the past year, my major gift prospect list has changed twice. Also, due to geography/territory changes I have had to transfer most of my seasoned major gift prospects to other gift officers. This creates a lot of anxiety as it has also been very difficult to secure discovery meetings via ZOOM or phone. The crickets are chirping quite loudly. As a goal-oriented, relationship-focused veteran of this industry this has caused anxiety – that sitting duck feeling. I hope it is not just me. Thank you for asking!”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

SELECTED COMMENTS: BUDGETS, METRICS, AND RETAINING STAFF

“Pipeline is the biggest concern; however, I do feel “we are all in the same boat” which is calming and concerning at the same time. Also, how will the next 18 months of our economy impact giving for this and next year?”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I’m pleased with the way my institution has pivoted, been fluid and willing to try new things during this time period. While I have little confidence, we will reach out fundraising goal in dollars, that is a product of the world around us and not our work. I do believe we are doing great things now that will be reflected in the dollar column in the future but not this year.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Institution will hit dollar goals thanks to much larger gifts from top of the gift pyramid. But number of donors from smaller annual donors is significantly down.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“I’m certain we will meet our revenue goals, but far less confident we will reach our donor participation goals.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“For leaders with a strong work ethic and ambition, it is tempting to press fundraisers to maintain an existing metrics plan, even when the world and the country are undergoing upheaval that makes these plans unrealistic. This leads to unnecessary work stress and job dissatisfaction.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“We are doing better than expected with foundations and major giving. Worse than expected with annual giving, cash and alumni donor count.”
(VP/AVP)

“Colleagues are overworked and understaffed with people leaving and not being replaced fast enough. We are working weekends and nights to get things done. Still loving my job but don’t want the extra duties forever.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“The institution has not thought nearly enough on how its “go! go! go!” mentality has been a strain on its employees. It also has not seen through the rose-colored glasses of why some of its advancement staff are comfortable with starting over elsewhere. Staff are pushed to the brink with their own work and then asked to pick up the slack of others and/or of staff members that are no longer with us. It is problematic and the “temporary” fix to being understaffed will only create long term problems when more staff members decide to pick up and leave.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“The work is challenging. I’m up for it; however, it is taxing.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

SELECTED COMMENTS: SELF-CARE AND QUALITY OF LIFE

“2020 was the hardest year in my 30+ years in development. I felt little to no support from my supervisor but had tremendous sympathy for my colleagues who were juggling parent-teacher responsibilities with their workloads.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“If the pandemic only had an effect on work, this would be so much easier, but there is so much pressure and stress from personal situations that it’s tough.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“It is hard to determine the impact as each gift officer is adjusting based on their own circumstances. I am in a good position because of the way that I like to fundraise, combined with a very accommodating personal life situation. I know others who are struggling because of very young children, full-time zoom K-12 where they are tasked with being a parent AND a teacher, and other life circumstances that directly impact their effectiveness in the workplace.” (Gift/Alumni Officer)

“My colleagues and supervisors have been incredibly supportive and understanding of the work/life balance challenges. I believe we have all discovered an ability to effectively work remotely better than we had anticipated. Leveraging technology has enabled us to better “shrink the world” connecting with prospects that were perhaps overlooked in the past due to geography.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

“Our leadership keeps telling us, week after week, that we need to take care of ourselves and make sure we’re doing well, but a minute later they pressure us about our goals, telling us we need more contacts (even though we’ve been doing more than before), and we need more money. They are failing to consider the well-being of their staff, many are suffering from depression and anxiety, and they just keep piling on the pressure.”
(Gift/Alumni Officer)

METHODOLOGY

The January 2021 survey was sent on January 19th to 1,577 Chief Advancement Officers, Vice Presidents for Advancement, AVPs, Directors of Development, Gift Officers (school/center-based, central, and regional) and Alumni Relations Officers at 106 universities, colleges, museums, and independent schools throughout the United States. The survey closed on January 30, 2021.

Responses to the January 2021 survey were received from 506 individuals representing 84 institutions (32% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.6% at 95% confidence level). Sixty-eight percent of the respondents had 10 years or more experience in advancement. Twenty-seven percent had between three to nine years of experience in advancement. Responses were received by Chief Advancement Officers at 47 institutions.

September 2020 survey had 430 respondents representing 59 institutions (39% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.7% at 95% confidence level).

The June 2020 survey had 386 respondents representing 53 institutions (38% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.9% at a 95% confidence level).

The March 2020 survey had 416 respondents representing 48 institutions (42% response rate, margin of error +/- 3.7% at 95% confidence level).

PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS

DETAILED TABLES

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