By Todd Cohen
[Note: This article, the last of nine, is from a report written for Blackbaud, which asked me to look at fundraising strategies that nonprofits have found to be effective.]
Annual fundraising at independent schools traditionally has been a “slog,” says Kimberly Kubik, director of institutional advancement at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass.
Geared to a school year that begins in late summer or early fall and ends in late spring, schools see a flurry of giving at the end of the calendar year, followed by the doldrums in January, February and March, and then another flurry of activity at the end of the school year.
To break out of that pattern, Shady Hill School last summer decided to use a model The Fay School in Houston had pioneered several years ago that compressed its annual fund campaign into five weeks.
Co-chaired by two parents, the Shady Hill School campaign tweaked that model, aiming to generate 100 percent participation from parents in 100 days, and raise $100,000 in challenge funding that would serve as an incentive to generate that full participation by parents.
First, the school’s advancement office secured four $25,000 anonymous challenge gifts from four families of current students.
A key element in the strategy was that it was driven by parents, and parents understand how parents think, Kubik says.
“No matter how many times the advancement office sends out a letter, it’s just another letter,” she says.
Guided by the parent co-chairs of its “100/100/100” campaign, Shady Hill School sent a weekly email to its parents that told short stories of no more than a paragraph each about what was happening in the classroom, for example, or with employees, or between teachers and parents.
Each email also included a short message underlining the importance of the annual fund to the school’s programs and people.
And the $100,000 challenge grant, which depended on 100 percent participation by parents, gave volunteer parent fundraisers “license to have conversations with people around annual giving,” Kubik says. “They could first talk about the challenge, and then say, regardless of the size gift, ‘You will help make that $100,000 challenge gift possible and be part of the team that supports the school.'”
That conversation, in turn, led to questions from parents about the annual fund, and why it mattered whether they supported it.
“These people they were talking to had never asked that before,” Kubik says.
The campaign not only met its goal for parent support, raising $1.2 million, including the challenge grant, she says, but it “has created a community that better understands the annual fund and what it’s for, and a sense of teamwork, that we’re all doing this together.”
Development offices “have to be more open to engaging and partnering with dedicated volunteers, listening carefully to their ideas and their awareness of the culture of philanthropy within the parent body,” Kubik says.
“This challenge was all about parents, not alumni, and working as partners to engage, fundraise and create a culture of giving based on an understanding of how the annual fund works and why it is such an integral part of an independent school’s operating budget,” she says.
The icing on the cake is that, having completed the parent portion of the annual fund campaign in December, Shady Hill School can now focus on alumni giving for the remainder of the school year.
On average, alumni participation totals about 9 percent among elementary schools that are members of the National Association of Independent Schools, Kubik says.
Shady Hill School, which has alumni participation of 27 percent and ranks in the top five among NAIS elementary schools, has set a goal for this school year of 35 percent.
“Regardless of where an elementary school is, the beauty of an annual fund being shortened to 5 weeks or 100 days, is that it allows us to focus on alumni,” Kubik says.
The strategy at Shady Hill School for doing that is to increase the number of alumni events to 23 in 2013 from seven in 2010.
In addition to creating opportunities for alumni to “come together and reconnect,” Kubik says, those gatherings include a brief talk by the head of school or a faculty member that includes asking all alumni who are present to share a memory of the school.
“You don’t want to tell donors why they should give,” Kubik says. “You want them to tell you why they should give.”