How COVID-19 has changed the face of fundraising for higher education

Universities need to increase their social engagement with the outside world.

December 14, 2020 by Dr. Samuel Martin-Barbero, Presidential Distinguished Fellow, University of Miami and member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council, and Juan Pablo Murra Lascurain, Rector Higher Education, Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico) recently published the following article in The World Economic Forum on December 10, 2020. Edu Alliance received permission to republish the piece and thanks the authors and the Forum.

Key Points

Universities could increase fundraising if they start expanding their social purpose off-campus.

It is essential that universities become nimbler, more global in their approach, and less isolated in their social agenda and fundraising action.

The pandemic will reshape how higher education systems decide on what needs more external funding and financial support.

There is a tendency to make a clear distinction between philanthropy and solidarity. Philanthropy is seen to be private in nature, to belong to the realm of the individual and an economic, liberal school of thought. It often offers a tax exemption and is thought to focus on independent causes and a long-term return – sometimes across generations, when it comes to family foundations.

In turn, solidarity tends to be perceived as more social, collective and broader in nature; more dependent and aligned with the Welfare State; progressive in policy terms and seeking short-term returns.

The United States is considered to have philanthropic roots whereas a great part of Europe and Latin America are understood to have principles of solidarity.

However, during this pandemic, we have seen spontaneous, unstructured, collaborative, voluntary initiatives come forth across the globe, led by individuals, associations, public administration and companies from different sectors, which seem to have blurred the line between philanthropy and solidarity (as also happens during humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters). Many of the actions share the same generous and selfless drive to alleviate the effects of the virus on those closest to it and on those hardest hit.

Some of the world’s wealthiest people have contributed to the fight against COVID with money and in kind, in a variety of different ways. In Spain, the founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, made his factories available for the production of personal protection equipment for patients and Spain’s public hospital system. Moreover, the remarkable involvement of certain Hollywood celebrities – such as Sean Penn’s COVID-19 testing sites in Los Angeles – was immediately, and greatly, appreciated by public authorities.

After the onset of COVID-19, fundraising and development experts from several US universities became concerned about meeting fundraising goals. They were worried that working virtually would make it difficult to make the most of their donor base and campaign teams, since much of their time has traditionally relied on their ability to generate and maintain trust by fostering in-person relations.

US universities became concerned about meeting fundraising goals due to COVID-19. Image from Washburn and McGoldrick

It is clear that COVID-19 will mark a new chapter in the history of higher education, by refining the teaching, learning, student life, mentoring and delivery formats. Significantly, it will also reshape how universities decide on what needs more external and generous funding and resources, which in turn will impact on their own social commitment, institutional engagement and fundraising strategy.

We have for some time now witnessed a shift in consciousness – thanks in part to alternative intellectual frameworks, such as the one proposed by Nobel Prize economist Robert Shiller – in favour of responsible finances and accountable investments. This shift has been felt within higher education. A professor in Canada even resigned from his tenure position to protest against his university’s continuing investment in fossil fuels.

Foundations are now increasing their attention and investment in social issues, from racial justice to supporting public interest journalism, by channeling funds into universities to research misinformation or fake news.

In Mexico, authorities called upon citizens and developed a series of joint efforts with which to face the COVID-19 crisis. These actions were undertaken by the public administration, working together with higher education institutions (such as the Tecnológico de Monterrey and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and industry.

They achieved several solutions, from obtaining accurate information and tracking patients, to pro-bono manufacturing, buying, and distributing of ventilators to hospitals, as well as raising awareness about the importance of wearing masks. Some of these initiatives, under the name Juntos por la Salud, have become genuine fundraising platforms thanks to their crowdfunding approach.

In all these cases, philanthropy and solidarity are part of the same shared drive to help the common good.

Expanding fundraising reach and endorsing new approaches

Universities would do well to realize that they could expand their fundraising reach beyond their communities and regions by expanding their social mission off-campus and overseas.

At a multilateral level, over the past few years, global entities such as the World Bank have invested in modernizing and improving higher education systems in different parts of the world in the belief that better universities lead to more open, diverse, and advanced societies. In the meantime, international cooperation for the educational improvement of certain countries in Latin America and the Caribbean has concentrated on secondary schools, not universities. At a local level in the US, the University of Pennsylvania has gone as far as to act by itself as a private donor to public secondary schools in Philadelphia.

A younger breed of donors now seek for a deeper and measurable impact compared to older benefactors. By doing so, it appears they aspire to leave a collective legacy, instead of personal branding by having their names adorn campus façades, sports facilities and student halls.

We might find ourselves, in a not too-distant future, in a situation in which universities with a conventional fundraising style would find themselves unable to increase gifts to erect or renew tangible assets, such as buildings, offices and labs. Instead, new funds and donations will increasingly endorse those systemic challenges of the millennium: poverty, inequality, accessibility and social justice, among others.

It is likely that higher education will have to stand and listen carefully at the crossroads where philanthropy and solidarity meet, where private and public partners, academic and regular citizens converge.

It is essential that universities assimilate those basic COVID-19 lessons and trends, becoming nimbler, more imaginative, less isolated, and that they increase their social engagement with the outside world.

Universities will probably have to transform more clearly into problem-solvers for third and vulnerable parties even outside their communities. Once there, they will start reaching out more clearly to society in general.

Hopefully, we may yet witness a positive “new normal” impact in higher education, in which universities become the courageous facilitators through which other agents, sectors and institutions advance their social purposes and causes. As Marie Curie (1867-1934) said: “Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”


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Presidential Tenure and How it Intersects with Philanthropic Success

Judy WierJudyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. She is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.

Presidential tenure must be one of the things that keep any President awake at night. The length of time a person is President of a university is decreasing at an alarming rate.

Let me cite an example of where I graduated, Auburn University. The president was Dr. Harry Philpott who served for 15 years from 1965 until 1980. The President before him for 18 years was Dr. Ralph Draughton. Since 1980, 8 others served as president until the most recent President Dr. Steven Leath selected in 2017. This works out to an average tenure of 4.62 years for each of the presidents from 1980-2017.

While 4.62 years seems like a short time for a President to serve, Louisiana State University from 1980 to 2017 had 13 presidents (including interim’s) for an average of 2.84 years. A significant percentage of presidential tenures nationwide come to an end after three to five years.

The American Council on Education’s (ACE) report, “The American College President 2017,” found that college presidents served an average of 6.5 years in that position compared to a 7-year average in 2011 and 8.5 year average in 2006. According to American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) data covering the past five years, presidential tenure lasted four years or less for 44.9 percent of member institutions. Only 26.9 percentage lasted 10 years or more.

“Fundamentally, the reason why tenures are shorter is because the agenda for leadership is so dynamic and is changing more quickly than it was in the past,” stated Lucy Leske, a senior partner with Witt/Kieffer’s Higher Education Practice. Fundraising and coalition-building have become a significant part of the university president’s job description.

Presidents are being asked to set a vision and motivate a wide variety of constituent groups, some with competing interest, to help in its implementation. The president must gain their trust to impart the whys and end results of implementing his/her vision. These constituent groups include university leadership, board of directors, faculty/staff, alumni, business, and community leaders. Is the average tenure of 6.5 years enough time to assess the culture of the university, develop a vision, gain constituent trust, and implement?

Numerous research articles show that developing a vision and motivating constituents of this vision is a primary responsibility of the president. They also show that successful fundraising is a critical component. Financial strength – endowments and alumni giving – are dependent upon the ability of president to seek and bring in philanthropic dollars.

In the last ten years there has been a growing list of challenges that has changed the job description for a university president. No longer is the domination of academic leadership at the forefront. We now intersect financial stability and growth of the university with staying the course of mission. As there is movement away from seeking out academic leadership in a president to one of vision maker/fundraiser. We are seeing changes to who is applying for these positions and who is being hired.

In the past decade the following have impacted this intersect of vision making and fundraising versus academic leadership at universities:

  • decreased state funding
  • lower enrollment
  • decreasing international enrollment
  • limited access to student loans
  • increased emphasis on transformational leadership
  • cost to attend college vs. increase in median family incomes

Can we realistically ask for success by university presidents with average job tenure of 6.5 years?

Successful fundraising is heart to heart relationship building. A president must spend time with prospects in building a relationship that may lead to a philanthropic impact gift. It starts at the top.

According to the 2013 study by The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy titled: Million Dollar Ready: Assessing the Institutional Factors That Lead to Transformational Gifts in Higher Education “Longer presidential tenure is associated with higher numbers of million-dollar-plus donations. An institution with a president in office since 2000 tended to receive a higher number of million- dollar donations during the study period of 2000-2012, holding other factors constant.”

For this process to be successful he/she must spend the time. It is not a “one and done”, nor is there a way to rush this process. It is a genuine investment of time. My experience with university and college presidents is that they spend 35% of their time on fundraising. It is a daily activity. Most were on a learning curve, willing but not yet able to lead a fundraising campaign

Dr. Jessica Kozloff, Senior Consultant with Academic Search and President Emerita of Bloomsburg University Pennsylvania, cites change management research which overwhelmingly show that in any organization, five years is the minimum time required for anyone in an executive leadership position to make a positive impact on the organization they are charged with leading.

Short tenures do little to establish a true sense of security within the university. They also leave little time to follow through on the vision established when the president first arrived on campus. For success there must be a process to develop personal relationships, effectively communicate the vision, and establish trust that leads to engaged supporters.

Over the last decade the financial challenges of our public and private universities and colleges have moved the leadership position to be filled with those who can create and articulate a vision, develop trust, engage in the growth of the institution’s endowment, and increase the percentage of alumni giving.

While university presidents have traditionally come from positions within academic fields, this is changing. With University boards increasingly looking for candidates that can fundraise we must ask if presidents are prepared for this task if it has not been a part of their professional experience. I believe fundraising is a hands on experience. It takes experience to know when the time is right for sitting across from a multi-million dollar donor and agreeing to their gift parameters.

Are we in that transitional moment where direct experience as a fundraiser may overtake the past trend of a President coming from the academic administration ranks? We shall soon see with the selection of the next generation of higher education President’s.

Judyth Wier is a 26-year fundraising professional working with not-for-profits and institutions of higher learning. Nineteen of those years were spent in leadership roles that included planned giving, marketing, fundraising, management, external communications, and strategic planning. Her higher education career includes serving as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Cottey College in Missouri, Chief Fundraising Officer for the University of New Orleans, Louisiana, Executive Director of the Advancement Louisiana State University of Veterinary Medicine, and Associate Vice Chancellor University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Additional Article Sources

American Council on Education. Spring Supplement 2012. “The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways”. Bryan J. Cook.

American Association of State College and Universities. 2017 Summer. Public Purpose. “The Erosion of Presidential Tenure”. Karen Doss Bowman

“University Presidents and the Role of Fundraising at Private Liberal Arts Universities.” 2016. Dissertation by Greely Robert Myers, Walden University.

“The Relational Effect University Momentum Has on Philanthropic Support”. May 2016. Dissertation by John D. North. Olivet Nazarene University.


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Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.