With rare exceptions, most Development Directors at independent schools operate alone, with just one or two support staff. Is it possible to dramatically improve the results of the existing fundraising effort without a corresponding increase in the size of the office and the budget? Absolutely! The answer lies in a largely untapped resource already in existence: the board of governors. But wait a minute. Governors aren’t fundraisers, are they? And if there was any discussion about expectations when they were recruited, it likely didn’t include fundraising. So how can we expect them to do something they weren’t asked to do, may not know how to do, and possibly don’t want to do?
Governors may be hesitant to become involved in fundraising because they think it’s about “asking for money”. But if we examine the four basic building blocks of fundraising – Identification, Cultivation, Solicitation, and Stewardship – we can see that only one of those four critical elements actually involves asking for money. Cultivation and Stewardship are all about relationship-building. And this is where governors can add tremendous value to the work done by the Development Office. Once a prospect has been identified as having the capacity for philanthropic support, the next step is to determine the level of that person’s interest in the school and its mission. A prospect who gets a call from the Development Office to request a meeting may (rightly) suspect that the Development Office is calling to ask for money, and the prospect may use multiple excuses to avoid the meeting. But if the same prospect gets an invitation from a governor to meet for coffee or lunch, they are much more likely to accept. The call can be very casual: “I am going to be in your area on business next month and would love to meet with you to talk about the school and get your opinions about some ideas the board is currently exploring.” If desired, the caller can even add, “I’m not going to ask you for a gift.”
At the meeting, the governor should ask the following preliminary questions, the answers to which will give some indication of the prospect’s level of affinity for the school:
- How was your experience at the school?
- What have you done since?
- Did the school prepare you for life after school?
- What could it have done better?
- Have you ever been back?
- Are you in touch with any of your classmates?
The next questions will determine the prospect’s interest in philanthropy generally:
- Apart from your daily work, what are you interested in?
- Are there any organizations that you support, either financially or by volunteering?
After the meeting, this valuable information is relayed back to the Development Office to help build the database. The answers may reveal that a prospect’s interests and the school’s current fundraising objectives are closely aligned and that the prospect would be very happy to support the initiatives being undertaken. Even if they are not currently aligned, future initiatives may be closer to the prospect’s (now-known) areas of interest and, if significant enough, could even be tailored to that prospect. At the very least, the governor will have made an alumnus feel valued and, thus, been a brand ambassador for the school.
Once a donor has made a gift, Stewardship becomes important. Stewardship includes an appropriate “thank you” but also continuing contact with the donor to make sure they understand the impact of their gift and continue to feel connected. A donor who receives a one-on-one meeting with a governor as part of the process will feel appreciated to a far greater extent than a simple thank-you letter could accomplish.
It will be observed that in requesting this meeting with the prospect, the governor is not doing anything that they would not otherwise do. Most travel on business or to see friends and family; all will have coffee or lunch during the course of a day, and combining that with an information-gathering or thank-you session is not exactly onerous. Over time, the impact on the fundraising results will be substantial.
Charles Platt is a member of Graham-Pelton’s Senior Counsel, partnering with the firm’s clients in the UK and Europe to provide strategic fundraising advice and support to School leaders. Contact him by email or by calling +44 (0) 207 060 2622.