At the beginning of March, you probably got a lot of emails about “fundraising in a time of uncertainty.” It’s pretty clear that we have moved past “uncertainty” to “constant change.” Given all that is transpiring in the world, what is the best way to approach fundraising now?
At Graham-Pelton, we partner on a regular basis with independent schools around the country. Our focus is fundraising and philanthropy, and we have been impressed and inspired by much of the work accomplished by heads, trustees, development directors, alumni officers, and other staff. While there are significant challenges ahead and there is much for schools to manage, there are also reasons to feel confident moving forward with all aspects of major gifts fundraising.
Below are some positive trends that are worth noting:
Engagement – We are seeing high levels of engagement among parents and alumni. As one development director put it recently, “It’s amazing how much more engaged parents are when they can’t leave the house.” Parents and alumni are opening emails, interacting with social media posts, and attending events virtually that they might ordinarily have to skip. Of course, it’s critical to capture that engagement in the database and follow up personally.
Geographical inclusion – One advantage of Zoom events is that far-flung alumni can easily join events that would have been otherwise limited to a small group. This is especially beneficial for schools that don’t have the resources to hold regular alumni get-togethers around the globe. It’s also nice for alumni who live in rural areas and smaller cities who might never get the chance to participate in in-person alumni programming. One school sponsored a “tea with the head of school” for alumni in China. It was an evening event for those in the States and a breakfast social for those in China (a day later), and that was half the fun.
Interest in continuous learning – With many people at home looking for ways to grow and learn, schools are seeing an increase in alumni and parent participation in events with an educational bent. One school hosted its annual faculty poetry reading online, and over 300 alumni joined in, far more than the usual handful who show up when the event is held on campus. Consider giving your faculty a chance to shine with alumni who adore them.
Opportunities for stewardship – Traditional stewardship can be extremely time-consuming. In fact, under normal circumstances, one of the biggest complaints we hear from donors is a lack of stewardship. The good news: online meetings can allow you to deliver updates to donors quickly and to a large group of people at once. One school, which had raised significant funds for an emergency relief program, held an online town hall to share information about how the money was distributed. The school shared moving stories about the impact that the emergency fund made (keeping student information confidential, of course). Registration for the event was high and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
A new kind of connection – We all know that an online meeting is not the same as an in-person coffee or lunch or even a quick conversation with a parent in the parking lot. But sometimes the online connection can offer its own advantages. As one head of school said, “I was on a Zoom call with an alumna and suddenly she’s taking me on a tour of her home in Maine. That’s far more intimate than a meeting at a bustling restaurant.” We have also heard that some volunteers feel more comfortable asking for gifts over Zoom than asking in person. Think of Zoom as your best fundraising friend.
Days of giving – Almost every school we have spoken with reported a highly successful day of giving this spring. While next year will bring its own challenges and complexities, be sure to take a moment to celebrate recent successes. Positive reminders about the power of your school’s community will help to sustain enthusiasm and continued engagement as we move forward.
Major Donor engagement – We are happy to report that our clients are seeing significant fundraising success. Donors are indeed giving by Zoom. We have clients securing six- and seven-figure gifts online. Of course, now more than ever, successful cultivation and solicitation take scrupulous preparation. We work with our clients to ensure every conversation is strategic and on point.
Some tips to keep in mind as you reach out to donors:
Don’t make assumptions – It’s easy to assume that a parent will resent your cultivation call, especially if school will be online in the fall or plans for classes are still up in the air. It’s just as easy to assume that alumni have other concerns on their minds that are more pressing than your current building campaign. But you don’t know what anyone is thinking! Approach each meeting as an opportunity to learn about the members of your community and to get to know them better. Be open to the unexpected and you will be pleasantly surprised by what occurs.
Continue to ask – It’s critical to help donors maintain the habit of giving. A lower level gift is significantly better than no gift at all. The temptation to stop giving is ever present, and a rapidly changing world can increase that temptation. But donors will feel better about themselves – and you will be grateful in the long run – if they continue to give, even if it is at more modest amounts than usual.
Upgrade your Zoom skills – Every day, I have meetings with people who are still making rookie mistakes on Zoom, such as having a bright light in the background or placing the laptop camera under their nose. At this point, there’s just no excuse for sloppy Zooming with your donors. Spend some time getting those online skills in order. And consider purchasing a ring light to limit shadows as well as a stand to angle your laptop appropriately. See our top tips for enhancing your Zoom calls.
Use this time for donor research – This is the ideal time to catch up on “Quadrant 2” work, i.e., work that is important but not urgent. If you haven’t screened your database in a few years, by all means, invest in a wealth screening. Likewise, this is an ideal time to conduct in-depth prospect research on individuals, especially those attending your virtual events. At Graham-Pelton, we create customized donor reports that reflect financial capacity and philanthropic inclination. These reports can be used for cultivation and solicitation meetings.
Use this time to review policies and procedures – Now is also a good time to conduct a database audit to ensure donor data is being recorded and coded in the most effective way possible. After we recently conducted a database audit for a boarding school, the director of development said, “This was the best money I’ve spent all year.” This is also a good time for a review of job descriptions, a review of campaign volunteer role descriptions, and a review of other policies and procedures.
Conduct a data security audit – With the move to remote work, schools are more vulnerable than ever to data breaches and attacks. Think about how valuable your donor data is to a hacker – and the negative impact it would have on your school if that data were stolen. At Graham-Pelton, we assist schools with reducing vulnerabilities and maximizing data security.
The coming months – and years – will take flexibility, agility, and quick thinking. Schools that can rapidly adapt to new circumstances while staying true to their missions and values will be at a decided advantage over those that resist change.
The good news is that independent schools have long placed an emphasis on people – faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents. That emphasis will continue to serve schools well as we move forward into the future.
David Allyn, Ph.D., is Vice President at Graham-Pelton.