Fundraising, Part 4: Data key for independent schools

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

Attention to data is driving fundraising at independent schools, which have seen steady growth in fundraising revenue since 2000, says Donna Orem, chief operating officer at the National Association of Independent Schools.

“The best schools have always been doing a lot of prospect research and looking at data and having that guide much of their fundraising,” she says.

Median fundraising revenue grew to nearly $600,000 in the 2012-13 school year, up from about $500,000 in 2000, according to a survey of NAIS member schools that generated responses from 970 institutions.

That growth was consistent for the period, except for a slight blip during the recession, but even then many schools found they could turn to a small number of donors who had the capacity to dig deeper and who “understood the challenges schools were facing,” Orem says.

Schools are using data to better understand donors based on factors such as gender and race, segmenting their base of donors and prospects.

“The fundraiser today in an independent school does his or her homework to really understand those nuances,” Orem says.

And with 10 percent of donors typically accounting for 90 percent of fundraising revenue, she says, schools are focusing most of their efforts in major-gift fundraising.

“Most schools understand they have to have a very effective major-gifts program, have to do research to understand who their best donors are, and have to have effective major-gifts fundraisers who understand how to engage those donors, who need ongoing cultivation,” she says.

And donors increasingly want to “be involved in the life of the school,” she says, and to “understand how their money has been used, and what the outcomes are.”

Schools also are looking for ways to cultivate students and young alumni, and increasingly are focusing on online and social media to connect with then.

And they are investing more in cultivating alumni.

Citing a groundbreaking 1998 study by Stanford University on alumni giving, Orem says alumni who give the most “are those who feel most connected to the school of today.”

Schools understand that “if the only time alumni hear from the school is when they need money, they won’t get money,” she says.

So schools are developing programs to engage alumni, such as programs in cities with large concentrations of alumni, and travel, and also are using social media to build alumni communities.

Recognizing that grandparents increasingly are involved in their grandchildren’s education, and often paying for it, schools also are developing programs to engage grandparents in the life of the school.

A big challenge for independent schools, Orem says, is a shortage of experienced development officers.

With more nonprofits looking for development officers, the recession prompting many development officers to stay in their jobs, and older Baby Boomers beginning to retire, schools have found it tougher and more expensive to fill openings.

Ultimately, whether a school is large or small, the key to effective fundraising is to “create a culture of philanthropy, Orem says.

“Just throwing people at the operation tends not to be so successful,” she says.

What works, she says, is helping members of the school community “understand why giving to the school is important to the life of the school, and understanding that most schools don’t charge what it costs to educate a child, and one of the most significant ways to make up those dollars is through giving.”

Next: International affairs groups refine message

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

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