Independent schools often have projects such as turf fields or media centers that need to be completed—and fast! That's why an increasing number of schools have turned to compact campaigns to be agile in responding to growth and change. Waiting for the right time, right event, or right collateral will delay the inevitable, which is the actual work of asking for money.
"It's important to do your homework and be prepared, but sometimes we spend too much time waiting for the perfect moment," says Ki Perry, director of institutional advancement at the Fessenden School in Massachusetts. "Many of us overcomplicate the solicitation process. You can strategize for weeks, and it will never be as valuable as a conversation. A bad day out of the office is still better than a good day in the office, so remove your fears and obstacles and go for it!" Here's how:
At The Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts, we needed to build a health and fitness center. Our campaign committee wanted to scour yearbooks for names of former student-athletes. But given our need for speed, building a new solicitation list was not strategic.
Instead, we told our most loyal and generous donors about our aspirations. By having those conversations we uncovered many people who identified with our project. We invited 150 people to a series of intimate receptions at the head of school's home. One-third of them made gifts of $20,000 or more—helping us raise $9.1 million in about 18 months.
Limit your campaign committee to a small group of solicitors. For the fitness center appeal, we created a task force of proven volunteers—members of the parents annual fund solicitation committee. These volunteers divided up the donor list and made calls without delay, inviting people to coffee and asking them to support the fitness center. The chair conducted weekly email check-ins to evaluate progress. If someone wasn't making headway with a prospective donor, we reassigned the prospect to another parent with whom they had a better relationship.
Your donors don't have time for countless meetings with major gift officers. Instead, bring in a high-level partner early to secure meetings and get things moving. Donors are more likely to attend a meeting if the head of school will be there.
When Fessenden set out to raise $4 million in less than a year to build an innovation center, the head of school was willing to meet with any and all prospects. No one else could better articulate his vision or speak as passionately about the project. "Initially, it felt like maybe that wasn't the best use of his time because either the capacity or interest level or both were unclear," Perry says, "But we were pleasantly surprised several times when families made significant gifts that were larger than expected. Having the head of school invite donors in made for a quicker response time, an expedient meeting schedule, and larger gifts."
When was the last time you attended a gala that prompted you to make a $50,000 gift? Exactly. Events don't raise money; people do. Campaign kickoff events require time-time that you probably don't have. Just secure meetings with donors and ask for the gift.
When Fessenden started raising funds for new squash courts, one squash enthusiast suggested hosting an event with a local squash professional to spread word about the project and uncover new prospects. Perry's team soon realized that the event would take too much time to plan. Instead, they asked early donors to help identify and solicit families on the sport's local tournament circuit. Through this use of volunteers, Fessenden raised $3.5 million from just 10 donors—ahead of schedule.
Still want an event? Use an existing one. CSW's Family Visit Days were an opportunity to articulate our
fundraising goals for the fitness center to a wide audience—especially to those who would directly benefit from our efforts. The Academic and Student Life offices helped us craft a student-centered message. During student assembly time, the head of school discussed our goal while students held up numbers to announce the amount raised to date.
One year later, we used the same event to thank our community for supporting the newly built fitness center. Opening ceremony for the weekend began in the center and featured a series of "ribbon-cutting" activities including a dance performance and a Zumba lesson with students, faculty, parents, and trustees all participating. Major donors were feted at an intimate breakfast reception at the head's home. By capitalizing on Family Visit Days, we held a campaign kickoff and stewardship event—without spending extra money.
In 2013, Massachusetts' Noble and Greenough School launched its "Be Nobles Bold" campaign, a three-phase appeal to, among other goals, raise funds for building restorations. The sharply produced oversize campaign brochure mailed to every family got parents' attention for the wrong reasons: Some said the piece felt too fancy and that money would have been better spent on core school activities.
Given this reaction, as well as the brochure's size, gift officers were reticent to bring the brochure to donor meetings. Instead, they used personalized 10-slide PowerPoint presentations that simplified the case for support. They left donors with a one-page overview of the campaign, with bullet points on school needs, campaign goals, and timing.
Materials produced in-house can be tailored to a donor's interests—making the meeting more meaningful, says Casey Hassenstein, a former senior major gifts officer at Noble and Greenough who is now director of major gifts and development communications at Dexter Southfield School in Massachusetts. Donors enjoy giving early feedback on campaign strategy. Less polished materials demonstrate that the campaign strategy has not been set in stone and that donor input is valued. Plus, you can save big on printing and design.
Rebecca Schultzberg is director of development at The Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts.