Marketing and communications during a crisis demand flexibility and adaptability. For the West Virginia University Foundation, that was never more apparent than during the height of COVID-19. The Foundation’s IMC team of 4 had to quickly put together two campaigns in less than a month to help raise emergency funding for students hurt by the pandemic. Learn how this small staff was able to create two compelling campaigns while working remotely and amidst other job responsibilities. Find out what worked and what didn’t, and how under budget constraints, powerful messages were delivered to move donors to donate more than a half-million dollars in one day.
Sunsan Jones: Tell us a little bit about what was going on at WVU in early March?
Bill Nevin: In early march we began kind of meeting on a regular basis, understanding that we may be working from home. So fortunately the WVU Foundation for a couple of years have been working on a business continuity plan and part of that would be for situations such as this. So I think we really had a leg up on the work from home type environment.
The decision was made soon after spring break to finish out the semester working remotely and also students were going to be taking classes online for the rest of the semester. We quickly began to realize that our students were going to be negatively impacted by this.
We were fortunate to have some emergency funds that had already been established for situations like this. And we thought, "Well, gosh, we really need to make a push to let our donors know, first of all, that everything's fine. We're working remotely." But we were sensitive to the fact that everybody was affected by this pandemic and continues to be affected by it in some way. Maybe it's not a great time for people to make a donation, but we were hearing from people that were saying, "Hey, how can we help our students?"
So we felt we really needed to make an effort and to stay in contact with our donors. So we quickly started to push some of those emergency funds that we had in place, and we got a really nice response. We felt like we needed to really stay in touch with our donors, and we did that primarily through our own media platforms and our social media platforms. We really didn't go out and do any paid advertising, so to speak. So it really worked out well and we got a really nice donor response.
Susan Jones: Did your staff have any problems setting up working from home?
Bill Nevin: Well, I think the pre-planning really helped a significant amount. Many of the folks who work for the WVU Foundation are traveling and already have remote setups, maybe not permanently, but many of us work from the road. So it was not a real challenge for us to begin to work from home.
Our staff is small. The challenge might've been more just the spontaneous kind of things you do with a small staff when you're in an office, that's kind of altogether, but really, we didn't miss a beat. We just picked it up from home and continued to meet regularly as a staff and made assignments as you will with some of the campaigns we're going to talk about here in just a minute. But really it couldn't have gone more smoothly.
Susan Jones: How did the foundation find that out so that they knew what steps to take when it came to student needs?
Bill Nevin: So we work really closely with the office of financial aid and we were getting information really right away. Then the university went out and actually conducted a survey of students a couple of weeks into the pandemic. What we found was that there were a substantial number of students that were first of all going to need emergency assistance. Interestingly enough, there was a high percentage of students when I say high, probably anywhere from 25 to 30% of these 2000 students that completed the survey, that indicated they were concerned about how they were going to buy groceries over the next month to two months.
That's where those emergency funds came in. And we knew right away that we were going to have to start trying to find ways to help. And of course the CARES Act, the federal act that the government had passed, the university got a substantial amount of money from that. But only a portion of it was going to be able to be used for student assistance. And I believe there were over 8,000 of our students who had applied and received funding through the CARES Act.
And so after that money was substantially divvied up, if you will, then some of the private money that was generated would be sent out to the students as well.
Susan Jones: You had two different fundraising efforts you did this spring. The first one was for Giving Tuesday, can you tell us about that?
Bill Nevin: So many of you probably have heard of Giving Tuesday. It's a global organization that encourages people to make donations and to support charitable organizations. We found out in early April that Giving Tuesday was going to have a day of giving on May 5th to benefit folks impacted by COVID-19. And so we thought, "Wow, this would be a great opportunity for us." As I explained earlier, to help our students and to benefit them through these emergency funds that we had established. So again, we didn't have a lot of time to put together a campaign. We knew this thing was coming up May 5th, but we felt it important to take part in this and give our donors an opportunity to help our students.
So if we got our team together and we divvied up the assignments. We all kind of worked together and came up with a marketing plan for this Giving Tuesday, which was a one day effort on May 5th. As I mentioned earlier, I didn't really have any extra money in the budget to really go out and do paid advertising. So we really relied on our earned media and owned media to get the word out, especially on media, social and through electronic communications.
We promoted it for a couple of weeks. As we found out in the past, whenever we have a need, Mountaineer Nation really steps up and we had a significant number of people make a donation on that day. We raised over a half a million dollars in one day.
Susan Jones: But you didn't stop there. You rolled out another campaign the following week. Can you tell us more about that?
Bill Nevin: Well, as we were planning the May 5th event, we were getting more information from the university that students were saying, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to come back in the fall." Because it became very apparent that we were going to also need money, private donations, to help with scholarship funding. I pulled my team together and we kind of came up with this theme of we are stronger together. And I think you can use that in a number of different ways. We are stronger together as a foundation and a university. We are stronger together, our donors and our students, everybody kind of coming together.
And we put together a marketing and communications campaign that we launched the Monday after May 5th on the heels of our very successful Giving Tuesday now campaign. And actually we're right in the middle of that campaign still. We're really trying to let donors know who wants to help our students, that this pandemic isn't going away, it's going to have a long-term effect on our students' ability. Fortunately, we've not seen a significant decrease in enrollment for the fall. It's been relatively steady, which is really a blessing, but anyway, there's going to be students that need scholarship funding. And if you have the wherewithal to help us, here's your opportunity. So, we've been pushing out messaging really since mid-May on that front.
A lot of times we would be in the storytelling business obviously, and it would be easy just to go down on campus and talk to students that are benefiting from scholarships to tell their stories or faculty that are benefiting from private donations and that type of thing. Well, we didn't have that, but we didn't have access to those students that had received some emergency support from us through the office of the financial aid. And so we just reached out to them remotely and said, "Hey, if you're willing, would you mind telling us your story? Would you mind just recording a short video and telling us how you were able to benefit from some of the scholarship dollars that have come in and the emergency funding?"
And I tell you what, we've got some very heart wrenching stories that came in. Students were more than happy to help us with video. And then we just turned that around and then shared that. And we continued to do that, share that content with our donors, to talk about making an impact and really telling a story. At first, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be a challenge coming up with content,”but our students really stepped up and helped us out in that regard.
Bill Nevin is assistant vice president for communications for the West Virginia University Foundation, the private fundraising arm of West Virginia University.In his role at the Foundation, Nevin oversees all areas of internal and external communication and marketing. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2007, he spent six years with WVU News & Information Services (now University Relations/News) as assistant director and external communications manager.
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