The Future of Institutional Advancement: Leading Higher Education After COVID-19

As we look toward the Fall semester and contingency plans for reopening schools, navigating institutional advancement, fundraising, and grant development are always a priority for higher education leaders. However, this coming semester will demand changes in things like student affairs, philanthropy, advancement, and so much more.

I discussed these important conversations about the fall semester and beyond with a panel of Christian Higher Education leaders. We covered topics that include reshaping the health of our schools moving forward and the changes that will inevitably come for students and leadership.


  • Britt Carlson - Associate Vice President for Advancement & Director, Faith Rising: The Campaign for Gordon College, Gordon College 

  • Kimberly Thornbury - Senior Program Director for Enrichment, The Murdock Trust

  • Mark Dillon - Executive Vice President of the Christian Higher Education and Nonprofit, Generis

The Landscape of Philanthropy

COVID-19 has impacted higher education in many different ways. It has unearthed challenges and tough situations like increased unemployment numbers, uncertainty amongst donors, and driving interactions and instruction to become remote. Because of this, there’s a high population of people who are currently hesitant about making long-term commitments.

Another common trend in the current landscape of philanthropy is the anticipated decline in giving. However, the panelists shared the importance of stretching yourself as a leader and being sensitive to the moment. There are many people in the education community who are enduring well through these tough times. 

Unprecedented times call for creativity. We are comprehensively planning for spring galas to move online and finding innovative ways to incorporate virtual dinner tables. Though it is hard for givers to commit to giving for a specific timeframe, leaders are recognizing that generous people still tend to find ways to give in the best way they can. This is appreciated and goes a long way for higher education institutions.

5 Top Priorities for Donors

  1. Donors are examining the landscape for the future to determine how to move forward.

  2. Donors are consolidating and prioritizing giving. 

  3. Donors are exploring the areas they can make the most impact and where their gifts can make the biggest difference.

  4. Donors are determining if they are going to be able to fulfill their pledges and if not, deciding what’s best.

  5. Donors are interested in genuinely connecting with the organizations to which they are giving. They also want to see what’s happening with the institution and explore ways they can help students who are most vulnerable.

Advice for Leadership Training and Development

  • Although COVID-19 presents many challenges, there is an opportunity that exists for leaders to provide training in leadership and development. 

  • Take time to reestablish key components of job descriptions.

  • Get back to the basics of development work.

  • Refresh your segmented donor list and development plan.

  • Assess the current health of your board and if they’re still active. If not, take time to cultivate your board of directors.

  • Examine if you have healthy cash reserves.

  • Be encouraged to continue balancing campaigns and care. Donors still want to engage with institutions.

Practical Communication Practices 

  • Intentionality and being proactive goes a long way with your community. Social media, the school website, and newsletters are great options for communicating with your community.  

  • Be present with those around you.

  • Think about sharing a message of care. This is a time that requires a level of care that is pastoral in nature as COVID-19 develops over time. Interact and pray with those in your community.

  • Be sensitive to when it’ll be best to move forward. It’s important to communicate the gradual reopening of your school.

  • Hosting and creating events that include Q&As so community members are able to voice concerns, worries, and questions.

  • Gordon College managed to send hand-written notes to their alumni as a way to care for their community.

  • Establish communication groups that allow people to receive prayer, connect with those on campus, and develop a lot of open doors for continued communication amongst leaders, donors, and others in the community. 

Post-Summer Planning for Institutions

Panelists shared their reality in regard to planning for in-person gatherings and post-summer planning. Leaders are committed to moving forward in faith while developing plans to be fully remote and also providing a hybrid experience.

For future events on campus, leaders are seizing the opportunity they have to do more planning than they normally would while paralleling it with a robust remote option in mind. Higher education leaders are also creating new ways to engage givers authentically while being remote rather than solely asking for financial support. 

6 Future Leadership Traits Needed After COVID-19

  1. Ability to create new ways to be relational. 

  2. Dependability. Having a plan and executing it is an important trait that will be needed after COVID-19.

  3. Ability to be discerning. Make wise decisions and bring discernment to the table even when it comes to difficult situations.

  4. Being optimistic. Good leaders typically radiate hope through being optimistic. 

  5. Express creativity and innovation by being nimble and versatile.

  6. The ability to recognize a helpful and meaningful partnership dynamic.

Copy of Reopening The Church (5)