Elevate Philanthropy ™
Sign up for our mailing list

Private and Independent School Fundraising 101: Crash Course

For private and independent schools, fundraising plays a critical role in ensuring students receive a top-notch education and are equipped with the resources they need to thrive.

But for their fundraising efforts to make a sustained, significant impact, schools need to go beyond the classic bake sales and car washes (although those are still fun choices).

Robust fundraising programs give private and independent schools the structures and processes they need to make fundraising a strategic priority. With the right strategies in place, schools of all sizes can meet and exceed their fundraising goals, all while deepening their connections to alumni, families, and their broader communities.

Let’s open up our textbooks for a crash course in independent school fundraising:

Learn how support from Graham-Pelton can revolutionize your independent school fundraising strategy.

The Basics of Independent School Fundraising: FAQs

Let’s start with some background information. Consider these frequently asked questions about school fundraising.

Why do independent schools conduct fundraising?

Private and independent schools plan fundraising campaigns and conduct ongoing fundraising activities to generate revenue. Although tuition is the largest revenue source for most independent schools, tuition alone can’t (and shouldn’t) make up the entirety of a school’s operating budget.

It’s been estimated that tuition makes up on average 84% of an independent school’s annual budget. However, when a school is over-reliant on tuition revenue, it opens up a wide range of vulnerabilities—if enrollment declines for whatever reason, the school’s ability to operate at the same level will be in jeopardy. Effective fundraising helps to fill this gap and cushion a school’s budget.

Diversified revenue sources, like fundraising events, special campaigns, annual appeals, and other non-tuition offerings (like summer camps and facility rentals to local clubs), help safeguard schools’ operations and improve student experiences.

Who is responsible for managing private school fundraising?

Depending on the size of a private school and its internal capacities, fundraising might be overseen by one individual, shared among a small team, or handled by an entire department. These are most commonly referred to as development or advancement programs.

The 2022 CASE Insights Report on Philanthropy in Independent Schools found that school fundraising programs had an average of seven full-time staff members, with generally higher fundraising results for those schools that more thoroughly resource their programs.

Within an independent school’s advancement program or department, individuals will handle tasks related to fundraising, alumni relations, management, and marketing and communications. Staff members who fundraise and build direct relationships with donors might be referred to as development or gift officers.

What is private and independent school development?

What is the distinction between school fundraising and school development or advancement? Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to understand the difference.

Fundraising refers to the discrete campaigns and events that an organization conducts and is somewhat transactional—i.e. a school asks for and receives a donation. Fundraising activities fit within broader development or advancement efforts. These are more integrated concepts, encompassing fundraising, alumni relations, communications, and managing philanthropic relationships to sustainably grow the school’s capacity to serve students and create positive impacts. Development can be thought of as relational, occurring on longer timeframes tailored to individual donor and funder relationships.

Get insights from Graham-Pelton directly in your inbox.

The State of Independent School Fundraising Today

Let’s take a closer look at some key findings from the report cited above, the 2022 CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) Insights Report on Philanthropy in Independent Schools, conducted in partnership with NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools):

  • Among 1,335 participating independent schools, total funds raised ranged from $2,000 all the way to $625 million, with a median amount of $1.25 million. Total giving reached $5.2 billion.
  • The median number of individual donors per school was roughly 500.
  • Less than 2.2% of donors contributed over 75% of the total funds received. Conversely, 73% of donors gave less than $1,000.
  • Schools that reported their total committed funds (which includes pledges and bequests) secured a total of $2.5 billion, with the median amount of committed funds much higher than the median total of outright funds received.
  • Committed funds were most commonly restricted to capital purposes, followed by endowment and unrestricted operating funds.

What do these numbers tell us? First, independent school fundraising is a thriving and highly diverse field. No two schools are alike, and neither are their communities of families and donors.

We also see that school fundraising follows a typical pyramid pattern, with very small numbers of high-impact donors contributing the vast majority of funds and much larger groups of donors contributing smaller amounts. Committed or deferred funds can also drive significant positive impacts for schools, pushing capital campaigns over the finish line, building endowments to fund scholarships, and fueling day-to-day operations. Investing in deferred and non-cash giving can be particularly beneficial for organizations, as it taps into donors’ generosity in new ways and creates reliable future revenue streams.

Robust, holistic advancement strategies will best serve independent schools. A combination of efforts to engage broad audiences, cultivate major donor relationships, and venture into new, forward-looking ways of giving will set a school up for stable and diversified funding. By considering all aspects of the donor pyramid and lifecycle and effectively connecting with donors where they are, schools can transform their fundraising.

What holds independent schools back from successful fundraising?

Fundraising is a challenging undertaking for any organization. What specific challenges do independent schools face?

  • Strategy silos. The lack of an overarching development strategy can create silos in schools’ advancement efforts, with different initiatives operating independently and leading to wasted resources and time.
  • Competing priorities. Schools are busy places—without a big-picture advancement strategy, the urgent priorities of event planning and last-minute appeals can easily overshadow the equally important priorities of long-term development and funding sustainability.
  • Ineffective communication and leadership structures. When school leaders oversee fundraising but have little direct experience with it or clear visibility into the school’s fundraising strategy, the result can often be confusion and under-resourcing.
  • Scarcity mindsets and fears of donor fatigue. Tight budgets, fears of asking too much of donors, and discouragement at weak participation numbers (even when they might not be the best indicators of success) can significantly limit a school’s vision for future fundraising success.

All of these challenges point to the necessity of a robust and clearly defined but adaptable development strategy. It should lay out a clear roadmap that takes all priorities into account and looks beyond just day-to-day needs. Strong internal and external communication, collaboration between development and leadership, and a willingness to dream big can help you build a thriving culture of philanthropy that attracts support.

So how do you address these challenges and create an effective fundraising strategy for your independent school? Let’s take a closer look in the following sections.

Learn how support from Graham-Pelton can revolutionize your independent school fundraising strategy.

Essential Components of a School Development Program

Although every school’s fundraising efforts will look different depending on its size, needs, and culture, there are a few essential elements that effective development programs share:

The essential elements of a private school fundraising strategy, detailed in the text below.

  • Advancement staff. Staff members focused on fundraising are essential, whether they’re a one-person fundraising team in a small school or a group of development officers in a larger school. To improve retention and effectiveness, fundraising should ideally not be an extra responsibility tacked onto someone’s existing workload.
  • Moves management processes and prospect portfolios. These logistical processes keep fundraising work organized. They allow you to better structure and prioritize your fundraising efforts, resulting in more effective campaigns, solicitations, and donor experiences.
  • Prospect research resources. You need both public and specialized resources that allow you to learn more about potential donors. This allows your school to better tailor your fundraising strategies and donation asks to speak to your donors as individuals rather than as a generalized group.
  • Stewardship and engagement plans. Stewardship is how you maintain relationships with your school’s donors over time. To simplify this process, develop a concrete playbook for keeping them engaged with your school and allowing them to play active roles in your community.
  • Marketing strategy and collateral. What outward-facing materials will you need to support your fundraising efforts? Cases for support, brochures, posters, fundraising appeal templates (for email, social media, and printed handouts), and more will all be useful.
  • Tech and data resources. Schools also need the right tools to keep their advancement programs running smoothly, including a database or CRM, prospect research tools, marketing platforms, and fundraising software to fill any gaps not currently covered by their tech stacks.

Key Strategies for Independent School Development and Fundraising

How does private school fundraising work, and what are the common strategies that they employ to reach their goals?

For most independent schools (and other types of fundraising organizations), a typical fundraising strategy will be multilayered. Here’s an example timeline of a school fundraising strategy that illustrates these overlapping campaigns and components:

A sample timeline of a private school fundraising strategy, showing overlapping campaigns and events over time, explained in the text below.

  • Major fundraising campaigns like capital campaigns occur once every several years. They generate a large influx of funds for a specific project or investment, like a building expansion, that will enable long-term growth.
  • Each year, a school will also conduct an annual campaign. These are often themed to generate excitement and include special events and messaging. Their purpose is to generate a steady annual flow of unrestricted funding for the current operating budget.
  • Interspersed between major campaigns and annual campaigns, schools might also host other special events and small-scale campaigns, like a quick walk-a-thon or seasonal celebration, to drum up additional support and engagement in quieter periods.
  • Advancement work, including prospect research, qualification, solicitation, and stewardship of mid-level and major donors, occurs on an ongoing basis, like the foundation of the multilayered strategy.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific campaigns, events, and tactics that are used in the different layers of a school fundraising strategy. We break them down into fundraising campaigns (specific, time-bound fundraising initiatives, often with large goals), year-round opportunities (smaller events and campaigns that can fill in the calendar), and ongoing advancement strategies.

Fundraising Campaigns

  • Capital campaigns. Independent schools conduct capital campaigns roughly once a decade, and they last for multiple years. These campaigns rely on major gifts, raising significant funds to help make investments that will power the school through a new phase of growth. The education sector often takes a comprehensive approach to capital campaigns, totaling all incoming revenue throughout a given period into the overarching campaign goal.
  • Annual campaigns. Many organizations also conduct yearly fundraising campaigns to generate unrestricted operating revenue. If occurring during a comprehensive-style capital campaign, the funds raised through annual fundraising will be tallied into a running total, but it will be important to keep track of any restrictions on non-annual gifts given during this period.

Year-Round Opportunities

  • Classic school events. Events like fall festivals, car washes, talent shows, book fairs, and field days are all classic ways to supplement a fundraising calendar. They might also be incorporated into a larger private school annual campaign or capital campaign.
  • Sales. Product fundraisers (think popcorn, cookie dough, and wrapping paper) are also tried-and-true school fundraising tactics, although they’ll require you to partner with a product fundraising vendor. Selling school merchandise branded with your logo and mascot is an easy year-round option, as well.
  • Peer-to-peer campaigns and events. Peer-to-peer fundraising can be incorporated into larger campaigns or held as standalone fundraising initiatives. They’re also easily adapted for pledge-style a-thon events, like walkathons and readathons, that are popular with schools.
  • Community partnerships. Private schools often secure local corporate sponsors and partners to cover various operating and program expenses. For instance, a sponsor might fund some portion of athletics expenses in exchange for promotion on banners in the gym or on the football field.

Ongoing Advancement Strategies

  • Major gift fundraising. Although major gifts will be pursued as part of broader campaigns, this is also typically an ongoing activity. The identification-cultivation-solicitation-stewardship lifecycle is a long process, usually occurring over several years as families settle into a school.
  • Ambassador programs. Consider recruiting well-connected individuals in your school community to serve as fundraising ambassadors, hosting events on your school’s behalf and promoting events and campaigns.
  • Planned giving. As discussed in the statistics above, committed funds in the form of donation pledges and planned gifts can make a considerable impact on a school’s financial stability. Bequests and other charitable financial arrangements are flexible and uniquely meaningful donation options.
  • Non-cash giving. Other forms of non-cash giving, such as gifts of stock, real estate, cryptocurrency, QCDs, and DAF grants, can be incredibly impactful for organizations, and they’re popular among wealthier donors.

Learn how support from Graham-Pelton can revolutionize your independent school fundraising strategy.

Seeking Professional Fundraising Support

Fundraising can be complicated—finding the time to prioritize it even more so. For some schools, the task of creating a robust, up-to-date development strategy might be incredibly daunting. These are reasons why independent and private schools of all sizes seek professional support from fundraising consultants with experience in the education sector.

Professional partners can provide one-time or ongoing services ranging from targeted operational support to comprehensive strategic planning. For example, Graham-Pelton offers these independent school fundraising services:

  • Alumni surveys and engagement strategy
  • Fundraising assessments and big-picture development plans
  • Board and volunteer engagement strategy
  • Capital campaign counsel
  • Capital campaign planning or feasibility studies
  • Case for support development
  • Data analytics and integration
  • Interim advancement staffing

Learn more about these services or contact us—we’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about consulting services for private schools and how they work.

Independent School Fundraising Success Stories

How have professional independent school fundraising services benefited real schools around the country? Take a look at these impact stories:

Three case studies of independent school fundraising consulting, detailed below

  • The Madeira School wanted to conduct its most ambitious comprehensive-style capital campaign to date. Following a development assessment, custom research, and a planning study from Graham-Pelton, the school continued its partnership with campaign counsel services. The results? $85 million was raised (starting with a $15 million lead gift) that helped the school modernize and expand its facilities, fund educational and campus programs, and bolster the endowment.
  • The Potomac School saw the need for substantial investments in its operations and facilities to take its student experiences and outcomes to the next level. Working with Graham-Pelton, the school developed and tested a case for support in a thorough planning study. Once the campaign was underway, the school seized the opportunity to reimagine its stewardship strategies and philanthropic culture. The campaign raised more than $36 million and has had transformational effects on the school’s fundraising capabilities.
  • St. Benedict’s Preparatory School wanted to celebrate its 150th anniversary and its remarkable achievements in serving underprivileged communities by setting a truly lofty campaign goal—$100 million to sustain its future and those of its students. Working closely with Graham-Pelton, the school developed a comprehensive campaign plan, and after careful assessments, pipeline analysis, case for support development, and staff coaching, the campaign was underway. In 2022, the campaign wrapped up after having raised $108 million, well above its goal.

Independent school capital campaigns present some of the biggest opportunities for schools to transform their operations and cultures of philanthropy, but keep in mind that expert services can help in all kinds of ways. Fundraising experts can provide more limited support for improving your data strategies, engaging your board and alumni, or even staffing your development department during periods of transition. Define your needs, explore your options, and you can find tailor-made solutions that will drive impact for your school.

The Graham-Pelton team can help you unlock strategic growth and new levels of impact for your school community. Contact us today to discuss your needs—we can start building a custom strategy for your unique institution and community.

We also encourage you to keep learning with these additional resources about development best practices:

Expert support from Graham-Pelton can transform your school fundraising strategy and results.