Campaigns in Unprecedented Times: A Conversation About Learning From the Past

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By Jeanne Sharp, University of Arizona Foundation

The fundraising profession can be a very small world. Sixteen years ago, I was hired by Tilghman Moyer to lead a brand new stewardship program at a small northeastern liberal arts college. In 2018, we became colleagues again, this time at the University of Arizona. I have overseen the prospect development operation at the University of Arizona since 2016, and Tilghman joined us as vice president for development two and a half years later.

Recently, Tilghman and I had a chance to reminisce about the first time we worked together, when he was shepherding a comprehensive campaign through unexpected hardships and I was building a comprehensive donor recognition program. What follows is our discussion on what we learned from that campaign, and how those lessons might apply in the current era of COVID-19 and its attendant economic and fundraising challenges.

Jeanne Sharp: Tilghman, would you mind giving a quick history of the campaign so Connections readers can get a sense of what happened?

Tilghman Moyer: Sure. This campaign started in 1999, and it was spurred initially by a $10 million challenge grant from a large foundation. The challenge was to raise $20 million in capital commitments by June of 2003. Soon after, the college’s board of trustees approved a seven-year, $70 million comprehensive campaign that would include additional capital dollars, as well as a $16 million endowment component and $12 million for the annual fund. We had planned a public launch for the fall of 2001, but that was put on hold by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Since we had a deadline to meet with the challenge grant, we continued fundraising without a public announcement.

JS: And what happened then?

TM: We had planned a public announcement of the expanded campaign for some time during the 2002-2003 fiscal year, and then the college’s president was removed by the board of trustees in the summer of 2002.

JS: I remember you telling me about that when I was interviewing for the stewardship role. A major terrorist attack on U.S. soil and then a fraught presidential transition — how did the campaign proceed from there?

TM: We had a strong interim president who helped us maintain our existing donor relationships. Fortunately, we recruited a new president after a year-long search, and also secured a one-year extension of that original $10 million challenge grant. Shortly after the new president arrived on campus, we went through another strategic planning process, and our campaign counsel advised us to rebrand and extend the original campaign by another three or four years, increasing the goal from $70 million to $105 million. A second foundation awarded us another challenge grant in 2004, and we finally had our public launch in April of 2007. The campaign concluded — successfully — in the summer of 2010.

JS: Looking back, why do you think the campaign succeeded, despite its difficult initial circumstances?

TM: I can point to a few different things. The first is that we didn’t stop raising money, even after 9/11. We changed our approach somewhat, but we always maintained focus on making that case for support. A question we asked ourselves often was, “If the college went away, who would be impacted?” We also redoubled our efforts to maintain relationships with donors and friends. After the president was removed by the board, other campus leaders and I embarked on a listening tour in regions that had strong concentrations of alumni, so we could hear — in person — their concerns and hopes for the college. Our interim president and the new president took time to establish relationships with key donors, too, including the two foundations that issued the challenge grants.

JS: What worked well from a prospect development perspective?

TM: I can’t overstate the importance of good campaign counsel and strong data analytics. As part of the retooling of the campaign after the new president had been on campus for about a year, we paired a feasibility study with a comprehensive screening of our donor database. The feasibility study revealed very favorable views of our fiscal management and the new president’s leadership among our constituents, and the screening uncovered a much deeper prospect pool than we realized. We had been relying on the same loyal supporters for years, and the screening allowed us to broaden our reach and engage previously unknown potential donors. That played a significant role in the campaign’s success.

JS: So you’re saying a comprehensive campaign with an eight-year silent phase can work? (Laughter.)

TM: With the right tools and talent, absolutely! We were especially fortunate to have had minimal turnover on the advancement team during this time, as well as the support of an experienced, thoughtful board of trustees. One thing I wish we had done differently, though, was taken a longer view when we chose our new CRM system. The system we chose was affordable, but extracting data from it proved to be difficult and required a level of report writing talent that we struggled to find.

JS: Thanks for chatting with me today, Tilghman — I enjoyed the look back. It was so valuable for me to see such innovation and pragmatism at that stage in my career. I’m sure Connections readers whose organizations are in or considering campaigns in this era of COVID-19 will appreciate the chance to learn from what we’ve talked about, too.

TM: My pleasure!

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