Donors throughout the U. S. are responding to the immediate disruption created by the COVID-19 outbreak. At the forefront of the response is the need to supplement medical equipment and provide emergency relief from the economic and social consequences; thankfully benefits are having major impacts. On what could be described as a parallel path, COVID-19 is presenting itself as an existential threat to universities and colleges. It is premature to determine how higher education will emerge from this disruption and how institutions will (or not) resemble their pre-COVID-19 model (s). However, we can anticipate a staging of scenarios and strategies that will require donor involvement in new horizons of higher education.
It would be wise for donors to follow the lead of university and college presidents in the short term. Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research reported on April 27, 2020 that most presidents are deeply worried about their students who are socially, mentally and financially vulnerable as a result of the impact of COVID-19 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/presidents-biggest-covid-19-worries-low-income-students-and-colleges-financial-strain. As they are able, donors should consider gifts of scholarships, student travel support, and gifts supporting student technology needs. In a word, affordability has not diminished and will likely rise on the priority agendas of students and their families.
The intermediate horizon will be largely characterized by the marked restarting of mission-driven operations. It is still uncertain as to when that is likely to occur and how comprehensive the restart will be; one thing that is certain is that the features of the immediate horizon and the associated financial needs will carry over into the intermediate outlook and will likely assume higher priorities for universities. Donors need to be prepared to respond to university requests that formerly appeared to be largely operational, such as student services, support for campus residency and housing, investments in student retention and the rebuilding of an energetic campus life.
Longer Term Horizon
Rebuilding the aspirational and strategic position of most universities will require great talent and dedication by all of universities’ constituents. Donors will be a key component, but their financial vulnerabilities may insert additional caution and uncertainty into these key long-term processes. Donor diligence will be more important than ever, requiring close scrutiny of university strategic plans, an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges, and, a thorough grasp of the institution’s competitive advantages. COVID-19 is impacting university progress and planning; donors will play a new role in both advancing progress and improving the planning process. How these two consequences of the disruption evolve will require new thinking by all of the parties.