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Senior Advisor Walt Edwards on revisiting donor interests in the shadow of COVID-19, talent development, and lessons learned from coaching

This article was published on March 15, 2021. Walt Edwards became President of Graham-Pelton in August 2022. 

Walt Edwards Headshot

Walt Edwards joins Graham-Pelton as Senior Advisor to support the firm’s rapidly growing portfolio of national and international healthcare institutions to shape their vision, strategy, and philanthropic engagement opportunities.

Edwards, whose primary focus will remain serving as the Assistant Vice President for Talent Development at the University of Texas at Austin, is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in philanthropic coaching and training. We spoke to him about maintaining donor interest and fundraising momentum, engaging colleagues and program offers, and harnessing this unique moment in history to learn, grow, and lead.

One theme remains at the top of fundraisers’ minds even a few months into 2021 – and that theme is the COVID-19 pandemic. But you encourage a more holistic view.

From a strategic standpoint, there was an early and important shift to respond to the pandemic. Though we must not forget about the pandemic and the ongoing impact it will have on people’s lives and our society, we also have to come back to the elements that existed before COVID-19 hit.

The things that were important to people in February 2020 have not disappeared. They are now reemerging, and we have to be intentional on going back to reconnect to those things. We need to implement strategies that allow us to do both: respond to the pandemic but move toward a return and reconnection to other elements that were important in people’s lives. This must be done with intentionality, rather than appearing as though we’re just going back to pick up the pieces.

What is your guidance on how to accomplish this?

Don’t make assumptions. Talk to your donors about “where they are”: how they’ve gone through this time period rather than assume that everything is the same as it was before. How have they gone through this transition? What has changed in their lives?

We may pick up ideas from their new experiences and create new giving opportunities. And then we also have a chance, through intentional questioning, to revisit what had been important to the donor. You can ask how the new experiences of 2020 confirm – or conflict with – their thinking.

You’ve shared that giving during this time has cast light on a very human experience: the desire for some level of control.

One of the things that happens during a situation like this and something that creates discomfort, to put it mildly, is a lack of control, familiarity, and consistency.

You regain the feeling of having a little control in something through giving. People find satisfaction out of finding a way to adhere to a cause or effort: to make a difference when so much of the world has been outside of their control.

It’s important to take advantage of this, not only from a fundraising standpoint but as a way to help donors make an impact.

And how has this affected your thinking about talent development and coaching for internal teams? After all, they’re also humans living through a difficult time, just like our supporters.

You’re right. In fact, working with your team involves much the same strategy as working with prospects and donors. But you need to layer in the tactical. A lot of that has to do with becoming more comfortable with using platforms like Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams. You’re also trying to find ways to provide the resources they need – both individually and for any teams your managers support.

We’ve been able to shift the way we manage and supervise people to still focus on productivity but offer a lot more flexibility – for those who desire to work remotely to those who are happier in an office setting.

Skillset-wise, we’ve seen growing capacity in how to best use program administrators, like doctors or faculty, and to coach them in a short, very directed meeting. Including them in donor meetings is much easier now that you don’t have to drive three or four hours or take them an hour away from the classroom or lab. Instead, they can jump on a 30-minute planning meeting and a one-hour conversation with the donor.

While this is a great opportunity, we try to be cognizant of the difference in communication dynamics via Zoom, along with the shifting mindsets and openness toward this style of communication. There are skills that continue to be reinforced among fundraisers: reading body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, for instance.

At what point did you realize that you wanted to carve out a niche in the talent management and coaching aspect of your career in fundraising?

My own mother worked in development and, at first, I didn’t know what that meant.  I thought she built buildings like developers do!

My favorite aspect of my career has been the flexibility and diversity of my path. A little-known fact is that prior to coming into this field, I worked in professional sports. It allowed me to have a very different perspective.

After my sports career, I worked in development training, and that’s what allowed me to uncover something about myself. I found the work really meaningful. I exist in a family of those who serve: my dad’s a retired minister, my brother’s an ER doctor, and my mother works in fundraising. This is a way that I can be part of helping others find ways to improve society, give back, and do great things.

The most exciting part of my role is that you’re never quite sure where any of your coaching conversations will go.  Your goal is to help someone use their foundational skills to build their own style and talent. That diversity is what is most exciting – the different people I’ve been able to work with. It’s a lot fun, but you also never stop learning.

What was it that inspired you to join Graham-Pelton?

Graham-Pelton is a firm that is about making an impact. It encourages the flexibility of new thinking – of trying to find new ideas and new ways to help clients find success – rather than holding on to what they’ve always done. Like Graham-Pelton, I never reach a destination. I just want to climb in that vehicle and keep going. That’s how you continue to grow and learn.

In addition to his role at the University of Texas at Austin, Walt has served many of the top academic medical centers and universities across the country, including Penn Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, UNC Health Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Children’s Hospital of Orange County, among many others. Contact Walt directly via email or by calling 1.800.608.7955.