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Pandemic altered Development team engagement, but mission remains intact

For the Penn State College of Education, philanthropic support is not about the size of the gifts given to the college. Rather, it’s about the relationships formed, and the collective impact those gifts have on the success of the college community.

Development team
College of Education Development Director Steve Wilson, inset in bottom right, meets with some of his development colleagues via Teams. The group has adapted to using technology to accomplish much of what used to be done in person.
For the Penn State College of Education, philanthropic support is not about the size of the gifts given to the college. Rather, it’s about the relationships formed, and the collective impact those gifts have on the success of the college community.

“The professionals that comprise the College of Education’s Development Office are committed to the idea of transformation,” said Steve Wilson, director of Development for the college.

“By enabling our alumni and friends to connect their passions to the needs of our students and faculty, we are helping them to ease financial burdens and transform students into scholars. We are helping them to support innovative research and transform faculty into thought leaders. And we are helping them to transform themselves from donors into benefactors, who come to know the people who are directly benefiting from their philanthropy.”

Wilson said that gift conversations are driven by donors, so that the gifts they make reflect their passions and the kind of impact they wish to create.

Those conversations typically occur in person, over coffee, in their offices or even in their homes, so the life of a development officer typically includes a lot of time on the road. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that changed.

“The biggest shift in office priorities is to our collective safety. As a development staff, we miss engaging with our alumni, our donors, our students and faculty. As human beings, we miss interacting with our teammates,” Wilson said.

“Until COVID-19 is under control, however, we will not endanger ourselves or others by gathering or meeting in person. No gift is worth that risk.” Instead, development officers and office staff are using technology to keep connected.

“Our office has been using Zoom, phone calls, emails and mail to stay connected with our alumni and friends,” said Development Assistant Lori Witherite-Zellers.

“We have changed some of our stewardship processes to emails in place of hard-copy letters. I am working from home, except for briefly going into our office as needed to check the mail and process any needed paperwork. We utilize Microsoft Office Teams for chats and our team meetings.”

Director of Major Gifts Jerry Regan said he has been using a variety of methods to stay in touch during the pandemic.

“Most of us chose this field because we are energized by meeting with people and helping them make connections with the University and create some lasting legacies. Not being able to meet in person has taken away what comes most natural in developing relationships, so using technology and the telephone have been our new option to stay connected,” he said.

Wilson said that although they currently are prohibited from meeting in person, they have found that meeting by telephone or Zoom allows them the opportunity to communicate with their donors in real time, and even face-to-face.

“We may not be in the same room, but we can ask the same questions, listen with the same interest and share the same mutual excitement,” he said.

“The methods may have changed, but our objectives and our commitment remain the same.”

Across the nation, some universities stopped their development work altogether when the pandemic hit, but Penn State chose not to pause.

“Our students’ need for financial assistance did not pause for COVID-19. In fact, for many, that need increased. Our faculty still need programmatic support,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that while those priorities remain, Penn State’s Office of University Development remains committed to addressing them.

“Some organizations feared it might not be an appropriate time to discuss philanthropic commitments at a time when the world seemed so unstable. Rather than make assumptions, however, we decided simply to ask our donors whether and how they preferred to continue their philanthropic conversations with us,” he said.

“Some, understandably, requested a pause. Many, however, were more inspired than ever to support Penn State, and their commitment resulted in the most philanthropically impactful year in the University’s history.”

Penn State’s total commitments from donors in 2019-2020 broke a record, with more than $381 million raised.

The College of Education development team also has seen some positives come out of the current situation.

“I feel the pandemic has proven that even though we are not in an office setting, we are able to continue to successfully accomplish our jobs,” said Witherite-Zellers.

“Our team has successfully engaged our alumni and friends through virtual events and have had impactful gift discussions with donors through virtual visits. Both virtual events and virtual visits could become more popular or become a preference for some alumni and donors, who do not have the ability to travel to campus or accept in-person visits.”

Regan agrees. “I still believe that there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but I have learned that I don’t have to sit in an office in Chambers Building to be able to effectively do my work. As long as I have my computer, telephone and good connections, I can work anywhere,” he said.

Wilson sees another positive. “’How are you?’ used to be somewhat of a polite, throwaway question. These days, however, my staff and I are making a point of truly considering our collective well-being,” he said.

“We’re inviting our alumni and friends to share how they’re doing, feeling and coping, and we’re making a point of asking each other the same questions. Life has not gone on hold during the pandemic, and it’s more important than ever that we take care of ourselves, and of each other.”

By Annemarie Mountz (November 2020)