Charitable Giving in Higher Education: A Conversation with CASE’s Sue Cunningham

The following Q&A is excerpted from the Blackbaud Institute’s Charitable Giving Report Spotlight: Using 2020 Data to Transform Your Higher Education Institution’s Strategy. Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), shares her perspective to help higher education advancement professionals position their institutions for future success.

Q: Many higher education institutions shifted and adapted new strategies in 2020. Are there any strategies that will continue to be successful in a post-pandemic world? How might those current trends shape the future of higher education and advancement?

A: We saw urgency around three key areas in 2020: 1) work related to the pandemic—research, support of healthcare training, and delivery 2) direct support of students in need as a result of the pandemic, and 3) support for activities that involve direct service delivery to communities.

What the pandemic revealed, in addition, is the presence of “twin pandemics” as our members are referring to—the pandemic of the healthcare crisis and the pandemic of systemic racism and inequality. We have seen institutions respond quickly and thoughtfully to both.

There is every indication that work in these critical areas will continue. I have been most impressed by the mission-focus we have seen at our member institutions. At times of crisis, this attention toward what is most important and impactful, and in some senses returning to the core, has brought clarity through very difficult times, and has enabled innovation toward achieving mission.

Q: How can higher education institutions narrow race-based disparities and build a culture of equity, both inside and outside of their doors?

A: Colleges and universities have shown huge dedication to this work for a long time, including things like need-blind admission, outreach and service programs, scholarships and financial aid, and other approaches.

For those who work within advancement disciplines, we are seeing our members respond in important and thoughtful ways. First, and above all, whatever can be done to ease the financial burden on students and families is vital. This is an area that continues to be important to supporters of higher education. The CASE Voluntary Support of Education Survey (CASE VSE) indicates that the majority of restricted giving to endowments is given for student financial aid (39.7% overall). The second largest category overall is to academic divisions and departments (18.6%), where some funds may support student scholarship.

Further, we also know that institutions are working to come to terms with past actions that may have contributed to inequities and disparities—and they are examining how to redress these actions. This work includes everything from acknowledging the role that enslaved people played in building and establishing institutions, to the crucial conversations around renaming buildings and removing statues. CASE has contributed to the dialog through a number of resources available to our members from our recent Currents cover story, “Reckoning with the Past,” to our extensive library collections of subject guides and samples related to renaming, how to talk about race, and other critical topics. We encourage advancement teams to address these issues forthrightly.

CASE is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. The CASE Board has recently endorsed the CASE Statement on Inclusion. We have received funding to appoint the first Director of the CASE Opportunity and Inclusion Center and are developing significant programming to support advancement professionals in this vital work.

Q: 2020 reminded us all that change is constant. Now that we know forecasts aren’t always certain, what are some best practices that higher education institutions can undertake to become nimble, resilient, and effective?

A: Communications and marketing colleagues have borne the brunt of the crises this past year—from the crises around closing, reopening, and managing COVID-communications on campus with all stakeholder groups, to being on the frontline during the challenging events surrounding systemic racism, our communications colleagues deserve incredible respect for the work they have done. The increased and continued need for marketing strategy in rapidly changing market dynamics for higher education will only heighten in importance.

We are working closely with our members to ensure they have the right data and tools to engage in benchmarking and analytics so they can engage in continuous improvement in advancement. Our recently released CASE Global Reporting Standards and our work in core metrics for fundraising, alumni engagement, and soon in communications and marketing support the sensemaking and strategy work advancement leaders engage in.

On the philanthropy side, we know that demand for additional sources of funds will continue to increase at both independent and public institutions. On a positive note, evidenced by the history we have seen through six decades of the CASE VSE, philanthropic giving roughly mirrors the stock market, so the strength of the stock market over time has buoyed educational philanthropy.

On the alumni engagement front, we have seen incredible creativity and ingenuity in engaging alumni this year and expect that many practices to connect with alumni virtually will continue, even when it is safe to convene in person again. We will soon publish results from our work in alumni engagement metrics, and that insight should help institutions as they plan.

Learn more from Sue and other higher education leaders about the latest higher education trends in cybersecurity and data privacy, global reporting standards, charitable giving, and more in the on-demand Higher Education Spring Summit: A Review of 2020 Trends and Opportunities for 2021.

Q: In 2020, giving to colleges and universities decreased by 5.4% compared to the previous year. Still, the sector enjoyed an average gift amount of $1,671—the highest of any social good subsector. How can higher education institutions reinforce the value of giving among all generations to bring giving levels back up?

A: Every year, there is variability in fundraising at institutions. In the CASE VSE, which covered the first six months of 2020, we saw this across institution types but overall we saw only a slight decrease to $49.5 billion in our 2020 report from $49.6 in our 2019 report. Public institutions fared slightly better than their private counterparts in our most recent survey. But even within those sectors, there is additional variability by institution type. We expect some change at institutions year over year, as philanthropy is both an art and a science, and often a significant gift will come in and an institution cannot necessarily expect the next year to have that same scale of a single gift. That said, our research shows that continued, sustained effort over the long term yields positive results. And we know that institution leaders are increasingly relying on philanthropic support as a key source of revenue. That requires investment in strong advancement functions.

The best way for institutions to reinforce the impact of giving across generations is to continually communicate to stakeholders about the work they are doing, engage them meaningfully in the life of the institution, and ensure that there are no barriers to engagement and giving. It is also important to understand what motivates people to connect with an institution and respond to that motivation appropriately.

We cannot overstate the importance education plays in transforming lives and society. The crises stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact institutions who have responded so effectively to the last 12 months through their teaching, research, and engagement.

Q: Higher education institutions have historically seen some of the greatest success with giving days. How are institutions navigating changes to their giving day plans?

A: We are seeing some normalization after a year of some tumult around giving days. Early in the pandemic, some institutions decided to postpone or cancel their giving days altogether. Others decided to create “sharing days” or “impact days” in lieu of their giving days. Others still decided to go ahead, and saw record giving. We have seen creative examples around micro-goals, and community generated matches that engage donors and supporters at lots of levels. We have seen the use of texts and social media to promote the giving days.

What strikes me about giving days is how institutions use them as days to generate enthusiasm and move beyond the focus on financial support alone. One new award we developed for our Circle of Excellence Awards this year was the Fundraising Pivot Award. While this award is not specific to giving days, it reflects the hard work and ingenuity displayed during a very difficult year, and the learning from the pivots will provide insight for years to come.

Q: How can higher education institutions use reports like this one to benchmark themselves and set strategies for the future?

A: Benchmarking reports like the Charitable Giving Report and the work we do with our global CASE AmAtlas surveys and benchmarking studies enable institutions to understand their progress against peers. I am a firm believer in the importance of these efforts. When the data gleaned is applied to continuous improvement, the college or university should be better positioned to achieve its institutional goals.  I have gone on record in the past about various rankings lists that are not helpful and that do not reflect the full range of external support for an institution—whether that support is philanthropic, related to engagement with students and alumni, or helps with advocacy. The full picture is what is most helpful.

Advancement leaders should always challenge themselves to improve their programs and efforts. Benchmarking helps with context for that leadership activity.

Q: Online giving to colleges and universities grew by 10.4% in 2020. How have digital channels changed the ways colleges and universities have engaged with their donors? Do you anticipate this to continue?

A: The plethora of giving mechanisms will continue to help institutions engage with their supporters and reach new supporters. The organic nature of social and digitally-driven giving is a good thing. The recently released CASE Global Reporting Standards provide clarity for counting gifts from multiple mechanisms so that they are acknowledged in the overall fundraising picture for the institution.

CASE has created resources to support its members in this regard, including a subject guide on Crowdfunding, Online Giving Days, among other topics. Additionally, our CASE Circle of Excellence Award Categories honor activities that are peer-selected and considered best in class. A number of those awards address digital fundraising, communications, and Flash Campaigns  that help advancement leaders thing through important considerations with respect to the changing ways to reach donors.

Get more insights into 2020 higher education charitable giving and what it means for 2021 in the free Charitable Giving Report Spotlight: Using 2020 Data to Transform Your Higher Education Institution’s Strategy

About Sue Cunningham: Sue Cunningham is president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), which champions the work of advancement professionals at 3,100 schools, colleges, and universities in over 80 countries. Ms. Cunningham serves as a trustee for the University of San Diego and a member of the Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia) Board of Directors. She is a member of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat steering committee, the Council of Higher Education Management Associations, and the International Women’s Foundation. Prior to her appointment to CASE, Ms. Cunningham served as vice principal for advancement at the University of Melbourne and the director of development for the University of Oxford. She served as director of development at Christ Church, Oxford and as director of external relations at the University of St Andrews. Ms. Cunningham was awarded a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from Middlesex University, London.