Raising Money for Your School

Raising Money for Your School
Raising money for the newer, small private school is a job for professionals. We examine the three major components of private school fund-raising.

Raising money for non-profit organizations such as private schools has never been tougher or more complicated. A series of major disasters both at home and abroad can have a negative impact on fundraising efforts, so connected has our global community become.  However, the advantage private schools have is their built-in donor pool. Alumni and alumnae, parents, grandparents, and friends comprise this group of past, present and future donors. The trick is to figure out how to get them giving consistently and in line with their financial resources.

For purposes of this article, our focus is not on the older, more established schools such as Exeter, Hotchkiss, Middlesex and so on. These schools have long histories of successful fund-raising behind them. Instead, our focus here is on the thousands of much smaller, much newer, less financially strong private schools which serve communities all over the United States. These are schools which rely heavily on their top administrators and small support staffs to handle all the development and fundraising needs. These dedicated people are, for the most part, experienced professionals who believe in what they do. They also know that their donor base has significant potential, although just how large that potential is unknown. Even more, vexing is figuring out how to reach those donors capable of making major gifts.

First of all, let's break our fund-raising into three distinct sections and understand what it is that you are trying to achieve with these critical but separate fund-raising objectives.

1. Annual giving
2. Capital campaign
3. Endowments

Annual Giving

Annual giving has to be something which every private school encourages throughout the year. Here's a brief outline of how annual giving works.

  • Budget an amount which you need to help balance your budget.
  • Announce a goal of at least 20% more than what you need to allow for shrinkage and unexpected events.
  • Divide that up into 12 monthly allotments. These monthly forecasts can differ from what you originally projected according to the time of year and other factors. For example, you might project a higher total for the month which has Reunion Weekend or some other annual event which draws in lots of your alumni and other supporters.
  • Publicize your annual giving information on a secure page on your website. Set up an online form so that your supporters can give anytime they want to without having to write a check or speak with somebody.
  • There's much more to successful annual giving, of course, than what we have outlined above. But hopefully, you are beginning to see the need for hiring a professional development person to take care of this and the other fund-raising chores on a daily basis. Perhaps you can budget for a part-time position to get things off the ground at first. Once the value of professional development leadership is shown, you can establish a full-time position.

This short video explains how annual funds work.

Capital Campaigns

Capital campaigns are different from annual giving in the sense that they are one-time fund-raising efforts. For example, if the school needs a new dining facility, the cost of the project will probably be too much to include in your operating budget. In any case, that's not prudent financial management either. Let's assume for this example that the new dining facility is going to cost $250,000. You might plan to raise those funds over three years. Obtain pledges and outright gifts to raise the funds needed. You will need two or three individuals to make challenge gifts of $10,000 or more to encourage others to give. The capital campaign can also draw from sources like foundations and corporations outside the school community. Here is a short explanation of capital campaigns.

Once again, managing a successful capital campaign requires daily supervision and attention to details. Hire the necessary professional staff to make it all happen efficiently and effectively.


No matter how long your school has been around, you are going to have alumni and alumnae who will want to remember the school in their wills. Those gifts may come from individuals who wish to avoid the limelight during their lifetime. Then, after the will is read, you realize how much the school meant to dear Millie, who has left your school $100,000 for the endowment fund. She lived a quiet life after she retired from her job as a librarian. She had inherited some money years ago from an uncle. She invested it wisely and lived frugally. But she never forgot how your school gave her such a great start in life. A professional development director will make it her business to know your graduates. All of them. What follows is a brief explanation of how endowment funds work.

As you can see, fundraising for a smaller, newer school than say Lawrenceville or Chicago Latin, is a major undertaking. It needs daily attention from skilled professionals. A headmaster or directress will certainly have to be on hand to close and to announce the bigger gifts. But practically speaking, the head of a school cannot handle fund-raising as a full-time responsibility.

Fund-raising is critical for every private school. Financial support from your community creates funding for financial aid awards which in turn help the school attract capable students who could not otherwise afford to attend your school. Building up a loyal following of supporters will help your school weather the inevitable tough times ahead. Business works in cycles. It goes up and then it goes down. Your constant nurturing of your alumni base of supporters will pay off with steady giving regardless of market conditions and business cycles. 

Loyal supporters are the best advertisement which your school can have. They talk about your school. They extol its values and what it has done for their children and grandchildren. Their names on a list of donors set an example for others. Sometimes one donor's gift becomes a challenge for another donor. When Sally sees that one of her dear classmates has given a substantial gift to her alma mater, she will follow suit and, not wanting to be outdone, will up the ante.

Examples of Private School Fund-raising

Questions? Contact me via Twitter. @privateschl

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