This month we spoke to Andrew Harston, Director of Development and Alumni Relations at Durham University, about the ways in which he and his team are engaging with prospects and donors virtually to advance the University’s priorities.

For Durham, 2019 had been the most successful fundraising year in the history of the University (…maybe with the exception of 1832 when we were gifted a Castle!). We had finished the end of a two-year programme of engaging face-to-face with record numbers of principal and major gift prospects, receipted record donations in UK and US markets, and were above target for our stretching ‘Durham Inspired’ campaign goals. We had a huge on-campus event in February celebrating all of this momentum, all of these milestones…and then our world changed almost overnight…

Coronavirus had unleashed itself with indiscriminate vigour across the world, affecting the health and wellbeing of our families and communities. Global markets tumbled, singeing the wealth of our donors and supporters; and all of our fixtures for the rest of the academic year had to be mercilessly scratched. As with many of our peers we were now running a global advancement operation from our kitchens, bedrooms, and – occasionally – from our gardens…held as we are by the Edenic climate here in the North East of England.

In the initial lockdown phase, we worked with our communications and colleges’ colleagues to respond to our community’s desire for information on how the University was handling the crisis – particularly, how we were supporting our students. With this in mind, we complemented our broader communications with direct contact between our staff and key stakeholders/supporters by conducting ‘care calls’ which enabled us to maintain important relationships. At this point, each call really had four components: 1) to establish an initial contact; 2) to ask how friends, family and businesses were doing; 3) to update on new information, priorities and needs here; and 4) to set expectations for any next steps.

These calls were critical but were not designed or held to make specific asks – it was too early. As time has moved on, however, we have slowly started to re-surface our advancement objectives. To make progress towards our goals, we needed to think more creatively about ways not just to communicate but to connect and involve stakeholders too. This led us to undertake several actions:

Overall, we have tried – and continue to try – to keep people entertained, educated, and engaged in whatever way we think will be appreciated by our audiences.

In closing, my five top (unsolicited!) tips to other organisational leaders, regardless of sector, would be:

  1. Make time for short calls! Have a plan for these but do not overthink the engagement – just checking-in will be appreciated and often instructive. Share feedback from these calls with your executive colleagues, maybe have a joint call where that’s appropriate? Just stay on each other’s radar;
  2. Reach out to prospects to continue pre-existing giving conversations. For those with current relationships, there is no need to wait until you can meet in person; you can still move ‘live’ giving discussions forward in lockdown;
  3. Remember your wider community, including them now will help your future pipeline – for donors, leaders, student mentors, and recruitment ambassadors;
  4. Look at your data and particularly budgets for next year, now! Budgets in our space will likely be tighter the world over for the next 1-3 years: we need to plan and prioritise. Engage decision-makers and advocates in the need to provide resources which help you to sustain or enhance returns; and be prepared to compromise, but demonstrate clearly – with data – the difference between operable compromise and self-authored development oblivion!; and
  5. Most important, look out for your own health and wellbeing and that of your colleagues. It will be of no use to our respective causes when the world unlocks and we find ourselves emotionally and physically whittled to a splinter by stress, anxiety and fatigue. Ask someone how they’re doing, tell someone how you’re doing – please, just keep talking.

Stay safe,

If you’d like to contact Andrew with any questions or comments, please reach out to him at: