UNC System Advancement Symposium: Key Takeaways

The University of North Carolina System held its annual conference this week in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Winkler Group team spread out and attended sessions, roundtables, and keynotes. We enjoyed deep discussions and learned much from new and old friends and colleagues. Here are some of the thought-provoking content and best practices we heard: 

Higher Ed Campaigns

Donors today are seeking a fresh approach to higher education capital campaigns. The traditional five- and ten-year campaign models have become tired and less effective, leading to donor fatigue and waning interest. 

The campaign gift pyramid is no longer a pyramid but an hourglass thanks to the trend of the mega donor and the concentration on major gifts. The erosion of the mid-level donor base is a worrisome trend.  

Engaging leadership donors has proven to be one of the most effective strategies in revitalizing capital campaigns. By involving them in the strategic planning process and conducting a needs assessment prior to the campaign, institutions create a sense of ownership and alignment. Leadership donors bring valuable insights, expertise, and passion to the table, making them vital partners in driving the campaign’s success. 

Donor Behavior

We should view students as alumni-in-residence; creating a feeling of home for them on campus is key to building long-term relationships.  

It’s time to rethink annual giving. Donor expectations have changed thanks to the online experiences they see elsewhere. They want meaningful engagement, curated experiences, and relevant materials. And they want us to tell them that we noticed they made a gift. 

When donors are friends with other donors to the same cause, the lifetime value of their gift is four to five times higher. 

Young alumni don’t want to be asked to give. Instead, they want to know that their university cares about them. If they do decide to give, they want to give to causes they care about like a student food pantry. 

When approaching donors, we must move away from a university-centric model with donor messaging that is rooted in loyalty and a responsibility to give back. Instead, the messaging should be around the impact the donor is making and the community they are supporting.  

The Economy and Philanthropy

Since 1937, U.S. stocks have ended in a positive position 76% of all years. This is an important statistic given the strong correlation between the stock market and philanthropic giving. 

In an uncertain economy, qualifying donors, understanding their philanthropic motivations, and connecting them to campus becomes even more important.  It’s also a good time for us to focus on deferred gifts, particularly life income gifts for those donors who are no longer in the workforce.  

According to the TIAA-subsidiary firm Nuveen, there is a 50 percent chance of a recession in the next 12 months. If there is a recession, it will be a mild one. 

Advancement Leadership and Staffing

Effective leadership plays a pivotal role in driving success, especially during turbulent times. These challenging periods present opportunities for leaders to demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and strategic decision-making. It is through navigating uncertainty and making tough choices that leaders establish their credibility and inspire confidence in their teams. Remember that people follow the person first, then the plan.

The best leaders are continuous learners who prioritize personal development and maintain a focus on the organization’s goals. Moreover, they understand the importance of staying clear of institutional and staff drama.

Honesty and competence remain the top characteristics that earn admiration and trust from their teams. 


Thank you to these presenters for providing the thought-provoking content cited here: Jason Castelluccio, Carolyn Stone, Kevin Williamson, James Barnard, Josh Birkholz, Barb Coury, and Dan Faill. 

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