Record Enrollment, Remarkable Fundraising: How One Liberal Arts College is Thriving in a Pandemic

Written by Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and EVP

Students walk on the campus of Brevard College. Fundraising.

Even as the Coronavirus spread across the nation last March, Brevard College leaders had a vision and a path forward.  That plan, despite many distractions, has kept them focused on a strong future. The 167-year-old liberal arts college in the mountains of Western North Carolina has survived depressions and world wars.  With prudent planning, it will also withstand the virus.

Today, Brevard College has never been stronger.  Fall enrollment is at an all-time high as students return to campus.  Retention rates exceed last year’s already-robust rates.

How did they do it?

Besides round-the-clock hard work, the college’s leadership points to a few tactics that have worked—and will continue to work once the pandemic passes.

  • Transparency and communication.  Constant updates with students and faculty. Weekly meetings with other college presidents in the area.  From these frank discussions, trust emerged among students and families, alumni, and the community around the college.
  • Intensive student-centered marketing.  “Eighteen- to 20-year-old students don’t want to learn online.  They want to play sports and be with friends,” recognizes David Joyce, Ed.D., President of Brevard College.  “We’ve used our small size as an advantage in our messaging.”   
  • “If you create genuine engagement, the money follows,” explains Kathryn Holten, Ph.D., Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development.  Starting last March, the advancement office and board members called everyone who made a gift to the college in the past year.  The calls were not about asking for a gift, but simply a way to say thank you and provide updates on the college’s response to the pandemic.  The calls created such good will that many donors chose to make a financial investment. In fact, the college recently closed a $500,000 planned gift and reestablished a relationship with a key alumnus.
  • Embracing the community.  When classes went online last spring, the college placed signs around campus that told neighbors, “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.” The idea of encouraging nearby residents to walk the trails and find peace and solace at a time of such upheaval has built community, and ultimately investment.
  • Creativity and flexibility.  Homecoming is going virtual this year, and the College expects more alumni to participate as a result.   “We’ll keep virtual elements of homecoming forever,” says Holten, noting there are effective ways to engage alumni without bringing them to campus. 

It’s not just small colleges that have seen record giving in the pandemic.  The College of William and Mary enjoyed its single biggest fundraising year in its 327-year history.  Colorado State University just ended its third-highest fundraising year.  And for University of Central Florida athletics, fundraising in 2020 more than doubled the amount raised in 2018.  The opportunities are there; donors are stepping forward to help colleges and universities weather this storm.

No one knows what the impact of the pandemic will be this fall.  But there are timeless lessons here for every college president and advancement officer: the value of real relationships, transparency, and communication. 

Says President Joyce, “People don’t give to you because you need it.  They give to you because you have earned it.”      

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