Ursuline College had a better-than-expected year of fundraising. Photo: Lisa DeJong

Conducting a donor call over Zoom can be less than ideal for those in college advancement offices.

“It’s sometimes scary to make an ask in person, let alone using technology that you’re afraid is going to freeze up,” said Greg Sanders, Lakeland Community College’s vice president of institutional advancement and executive director of The Lakeland Foundation.

His team pivoted, adapting and learning quickly during the pandemic. It became second nature and even a strength in some situations. But a bigger hurdle loomed.

“There’s a tendency to pull back and say, ‘The world is shut down, this isn’t the right time,’ “ he said. “But we’ve challenged ourselves to continue to communicate, to continue to provide information. Based upon the feedback I’ve received from the donors, that was greatly appreciated.”

Lakeland is one of the local colleges reporting a stronger-than-anticipated year of fundraising even amid the financial crunch leveled by the pandemic.

The college had a goal of raising $1.7 million. It exceeded that by more than a million dollars, securing $2.74 million of philanthropic attainment for the recently closed fiscal year 2021. The figure encompasses all the projects his office has had some involvement with, including cash, in-kind gifts, pledges, planned gifts and public funding opportunities.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education looks at charitable giving to colleges around the world. For the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, giving to institutions in the United States clocked in at a reported $49.5 billion. The group said that number was “virtually unchanged” from the previous year.

It’s still too early to tell how things shook out nationwide for the most recent fiscal year, according to Ann Kaplan, CASE’s senior director of the Voluntary Support of Education survey. Anecdotally, she’s hearing positive things, perhaps due in part to the strong correlation between the stock market and increases in giving.

“Even when everything around us is in a kind of turmoil, if that platform of wealth is stable, philanthropy tends to fare well,” Kaplan said.

Richard Konisiewicz, Ursuline College’s vice president for institutional advancement, admits his team was a little nervous when the pandemic began. Officials at the Pepper Pike campus kept the faith.

“We’re a Catholic institution and we are filled with hope, all the time,” Konisiewicz said.

They brought in about $300,000 more than expected. Support from alumni and the board of trustees was especially strong. Some board members, Konisiewicz said, give in a “very magnificent way.”

The college carefully crafted the message shared. Officials zeroed in on the best talking points to amplify, like an American Enterprise Institute study that ranked Ursuline as the top college in the country for student mobility and a national nod earned by its nursing school.

“We talk about our students, we talk about our faculty, their successes, even sometimes the staff,” Konisiewicz said.

Telling the stories of the university community is important at the University of Akron, too. Kim Cole, vice president of advancement and executive director of the university’s foundation, said it’s vital to provide context that paints a full picture for donors.

Officials at UA gathered information from places like the financial aid office, the bursar’s office and its ZipAssist resource program for students to convey current needs.

“If I say, ‘We really need student scholarship support this year because our students are in the worst financial shape they’ve ever been in their lives,’ we had to be able to show that in some data and tell them how we knew that,” she said. “It can’t be based off some anecdotal notions.”

The university reported gifts totaling $19.8 million in fiscal year 2021, a 16% uptick. About $6.2 million of that is earmarked for student scholarships, with $2.6 million of that able to be used immediately.

UA is one of nearly 30 higher education institutions and countless nonprofits in the region. That’s a lot of people and places all looking for donor dollars.

Cole said UA isn’t worried about competition, though. The alumni base is its main advocacy group. Support from that sector rose 20% compared with the previous year. Local corporations and foundations, she said, also “really take care of us.”

“The great thing about the University of Akron is that it’s rooted in this city, and this city really feels that the university is theirs,” she said.

And as a new fiscal (and school) year begins, there are new challenges to navigate.

“Who are the next generation of donors going to be, who are the next major gift prospects?” asked Lakeland’s Sanders. “If you look at the pipeline, that’s an area that’s been challenged by the pandemic.”

The college hopes some of its hallmark events can be held in person again later this calendar year. Officials are keeping close tabs on the Delta variant and its potential impact.

“Things like our Hall of Fame induction ceremony, our donor scholar breakfast, we really want those to be in person,” Sanders said. “Those are really important moments in the year of the foundation.”

If not, they’ll be ready to pivot. Again.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.