3 Steps for Effective Higher Ed Gift Officer Communication During a Crisis

Gift officers have a unique job – even in “normal” times. Successful gift officers build personal relationships on behalf of their institution. As representatives of an institution, it can be a fine line to know how much of your personal life to share so the prospect or donor knows and trusts you while keeping a focus on their relationship with the institution.

In uncertain times, it can be additionally challenging. Everyone is reeling. The line between professional and personal may be blurred. We have virtual meetings from home with children, spouses, roommates, or pets, all trying to share space and emotions are running high.

So, what can gift officers do in this time?

1. Track the Data

This is a vital time to keep track of information and data. Gift officers are (literally) writing history with every contact report. Each officer will want specific information on the conversations they have had so at the next point of communication they can remember what was happening in the world at the point of last contact. The institution will need data from all contact reports to track trends and how it responded in this time of crisis.


Best Practices for Contact Reports

  • Be more disciplined than ever about keeping detailed contact reports. You have a lot of information coming at you quickly and it is going to be difficult to keep every conversation clear in your head.
  • Start each contact report with a sentence or two about the overall state of the situation so when you look back on the notes, you can remember at which stage of this changing time you engaged with them.
  • Keep track of their concerns. This is a rich time to get to know more about those around us. Our passions manifest as areas of concern. You can get to know people on a deeper level when you listen closely during difficult times.


Best Practices for Proposals

  • Be diligent about maintaining great proposal information. Strategic leaders at your institution are going to need as much information as possible to navigate the waters ahead to forecast the fundraising future.
  • Adjust ask levels and timeline as you gather more information from prospects and donors.
  • Review and update all open and outstanding proposals regularly as you have conversations with prospects and donors.

2. Build Relationships

Relationships can deepen when people go through difficult times together. Think of your personal circle and the first people that you reach out to in uncertain times. Now consider the institution you work for – who is closest to your institution? As a representative of the institution, gift officers should have those check in calls with those close constituents.

  • Check Your Tone of MessagingWhile everyone is navigating the uncertainty at the same time, different regions of the world are in slightly different phases with different levels of anxiety. If your donors and prospects are in different parts of the country or globe, you will need to communicate differently. It is important to think this through before reaching out and acknowledge that your message might not strike the right tone for where the person is at that moment. Be prepared to respond to new information quickly.
  • Balance How to Represent the Institution in a Personal WayThe primary relationship represented in the communication should be the constituent’s relationship to the institution more so than your personal relationship. There is no exact formula, but gift officers should strive to have 85% to 90% of the discussion about either the constituent’s situation and/or the institution’s situation. This isn’t to say the gift officer should hide their own emotion or situation completely. Personal vulnerability helps to establish trust and bonds, but the goal is for the relationship between constituent and institution to strengthen.
  • Prepare for the Potential EmotionsPhone calls are the most personal way to reach out but depending on how directly impacted the constituent is by the public health and/or economic crisis, gift officers might find themselves feeling helpless or fatigued by phone calls. If the gift officer doesn’t feel prepared for a conversation, send an email prior to a conversation.

*Pro Tip: For officers making phone calls, have a few response phrases in front of you that are sincere and empathetic to stay focused.

3. Communicate with Prospects and Donors

The best communications are authentic to both the gift officer’s and institution’s voice.

  • How to Reach Out– Should officers make phone or video calls? Send emails or text messages? The most personal way to connect will be phone or video call but that might be difficult if the gift officer or constituent is sharing space with children, significant others, spouses or roommates. Gift officers can likely defer to whatever channel they have normally used to communicate with the constituents or use information on personal situation to know what is best.
  • Cadence of Communication – This will vary from institution to institution and prospect and donor to gift officer. It is important to reach out personally to all assigned prospects/donors/close friends of the institution within the first week or as soon as possible. From there, the cadence will likely emerge organically as you see which prospects and donors respond positively/eagerly to the connection and which ones might be too overwhelmed to engage immediately. On average, strive for outreach every two weeks or so. But keep in mind that with some constituents you will need to communicate weekly and with others, gift officers might not hear back at all.
  • Type of Messaging – This will be dependent on the crisis and how your institution is being impacted. If your institution has resources that can help people during this unique time, reach out often to remind prospects and donors of 1) your ability to support them and 2) how your institution is responding to the needs of the community. If your institution is not being directly impacted or does not have a clear response, still reach out to prospects and donors to listen to their ideas/thoughts. Some people will find themselves with more available time now to connect more deeply.

It’s during unprecedented, challenging times like today that gift officer connections matter more than ever. Learn how advancement leaders are overcoming the COVID-19 crisis in our on-demand webinar series.