Raising money to benefit your private school is something as omnipresent as the four walls of your office. It's always there. It never goes away. Even schools which have large endowments seem to be constantly raising money. They can usually afford to hire Development Directors and can count on a couple of generous alumni to prime the pump for their multi-million dollars capital campaign. But what about small schools which desperately need money over and above what they can raise through tuition and fees? This article is for those schools. Hopefully, it will encourage you to see fundraising the way large schools do.
I have based these tips, suggestions, and strategies on over thirty-five years as a church musician. I was always raising money for one project or another. Finding the money to purchase a new pipe organ ($100,000) or raising money for a choir trip to England ($50,000) were major challenges for me back in the 80s. Now that I am semi-retired, I am the social media director and digital content creator for a small classical music radio station. The station's entire operating budget is listener-supported and raised through 2 major fund drives and constant messaging. We have been doing that for over 40 years. You've heard your local NPR station hold on-air fund drives, haven't you? That's what we do too. My point is that I understand the challenges which you are facing raising money for your small school.
The beginnings of modern philanthropy
Read A Brief History of Nonprofit Organizations (And What We Can Learn) to learn how philanthropy got started. The take-away from this brief history is that you can and must broaden your donor base to be successful at raising money for your school. While your current students mostly come from the local area, they don't always remain in the area after they graduate. Alumni who live across the country or, indeed, in another part of the world, can be powerful advocates for your school.
Fundraising in the 21st century
One large gift? Hundreds of small gifts? It's unrealistic to dream about receiving one large gift of $50,000 or more to achieve your fundraising goal. But 500 donations of $100 are very doable. In any case, we are putting the cart before the horse. The first step is to identify your financial needs. The second step is to prioritize those needs. Then go after those donors.
Some things haven't changed much over the years. To mount a successful fund drive, you must have an identifiable, believable need. You must also have a fundraising goal. And you must communicate your needs and goals to your donor base.
It's not enough to announce that you plan to raise $100,000 without telling potential donors why you need the money. Your goal and the need are intimate partners in all of your fundraising endeavors.
So, take time to think carefully about your needs. Some needs will be immediate or one-time. For example, you could add projects like refurbishing classrooms or bathrooms to this immediate needs list. You would adjust your fundraising goal accordingly, allocating, for example, a target of $25,000 to urgent needs.
Other needs are medium to long term. Increasing the amount of financial aid which you give to students is an example of a medium to long term need. Also, financial aid pools are attractive to potential donors. These supporters understand clearly where their money is going. Your goal for increasing your financial aid pool should be significant, say in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. Being able to tell potential families that you can offer financial aid is an important selling point for your school.
Another need which appeals to many major donors is endowing a teaching position. This type of gift is usually restricted; that is, it can only be used to help fund a specific teaching position. The position can then be titled to recognize the donor in perpetuity. The title "The John and Shirley Smith Grade 3 Teacher" will appear in your school literature and can set a fine example for other generous donors. Endowing a teaching position also demonstrates that your school is serious about teaching and its curriculum.
Perhaps you have capital needs such as a new soccer field or a natatorium. Maybe you are thinking about equipping each classroom with Harkness tables or installing a robust WiFi infrastructure. Big-ticket items and projects such as these are generally easier to fund with a capital campaign. Capital campaigns tend to run for a long time, a year or two in most cases. I don't recommend attempting to mount a capital fund campaign on your own. You will be better off to seek expert guidance. Be prepared to pay for that expertise. It will be well worth it.
This video from Campbell & Company opines that the most effective programs use an integrated approach to build relationships, make asks, and achieve philanthropic success.
After you have made a list of your needs, the next step is to prioritize those needs. Be realistic. It makes more sense to have a successful fund drive to pay for a shortlist of needs rather than coming up short with a longer list. During this planning process, be alert to local market conditions. For example, if a major local employer is adding jobs, that is a positive signal. The reverse is also true.
Depending on the age of your alumni, you will probably have two forms of communication with them: analog and digital. I am facetiously referring to printed communications which you snail mail as analog communications. Your older alumni may prefer receiving information from your school via snail mail. The balance of your alumni will e accustomed to digital communications via email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Accommodate both sets of alumni when you communicate with them.
Mine your donor pool
Staying in touch with your alumni is critical to the success of any fundraising activity. While email and social media are helpful, there is nothing like a get together to rekindle old friendships and awareness of what the school is doing currently. A homecoming or reunion event usually draws well and will afford you the opportunity to ask for financial support. The secret to the success of the alumni event is to make it an occasion which your alumni will want to attend. I suggest honoring a beloved teacher or launching your capital campaign at one of these events.
In this video, Gail Perry speaks with Amy Eisenstein about the pre-campaign phase. Gail suggests inviting a panel of board members from other organizations to answer questions about the campaign process to alleviate board members' fears.
When it comes to wealthy alumni, do your research and don't hesitate to ask for significant support. After all, major gifts from a couple of alumni will encourage others to support your school. With respect to older alumni, meet with them individually whenever possible to discuss planned giving in their estates. Private school philanthropy has many examples of this kind of giving. One of the largest gifts was from a member of the Hawaii Royal Family, Bernice Pauahi Bishop. She gave 375,000 acres of land to establish the Kamehameha Schools. That bequest in the 19th century is presently worth over $11 billion. Fast forward to 2009 and the bequest of $31 million from Elizabeth Beckwith Nilsen to Chatham Hall in Virginia offers stunning proof of a former student's love of her alma mater.
How your school develops its fundraising program depends on many circumstances. Heed the advice of professionals. And never hesitate to ask for a donation.
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