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Pub Book Review 2014-11-6 Fundraising for Schools
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{Headlines} November 2014, Vol. 1,
Fundraising for Schools: 8 Keys To Success Every Head of School Should Know


By: Linda Wise McNay

Reviewed by: Sarah Stewart

Fundraising is a critical part of running any nonprofit and such is true in independent schools. Independent schools rely on charitable funds to subsidize their operational costs or fund capital campaigns or endowments. Funds from parents, grandparents, community members and other partners help schools add new programs, faculty, and facilities. In an increasingly fractured education market, independent schools compete with public schools, charter schools, and home schooling for these much-needed funds. Charitable gifts help schools weather hard times and are directly tied to a school’s future sustainability and growth. 

The topic of fundraising is front and center in Linda Wise McNay’s recent book, Fundraising for Schools: 8 Keys to Success Every Head of School Should Know. The book is practical and easy-to-read with multiple examples, worksheets, and tips. McNay explains how schools can identify, win, and keep donors. She shows schools how to organize and time campaigns, build endowments, and encourage a culture that supports development. Considering most heads rise through the academic ranks and the experience of board members varies, the book is a great tool for any school. 

McNay has worked in development and advancement for the last 30 years helping universities, museums, and independent schools raise money. She led successful campaigns and programs at Pace Academy in Atlanta, GA, the High Museum of Art, the Georgia Foundation for Independent Colleges, Emory University’s Emory Challenge Fund, and more. McNay holds a Ph.D. in higher education from Georgia State University, and a M.B.A. in Personnel Administration from the University of Kentucky. 

There are typically three ways schools raise funds: the annual fund, the capital campaign, and endowments. McNay stresses in her book that successful fundraising begins with successful leadership. In the school, that means the school head, the board of trustees, and the development officer. It is their ability to work together that will make development thrive. Their leadership example and passion will flow to the school’s volunteers, parents, friends, partners, and students.

Large schools have the resources to fund a development officer, but McNay says smaller schools should also consider the benefits. Fundraising is key to the success of a school, and trusting those duties to a volunteer is risky. Many development offices have a high turnover rate because the volunteer was not duly committed or qualified. 

“I’ve found that if an institution is willing to invest in development, even in a small way, it’s a great benefit to the school,” McNay said. “You can only do so much with a volunteer, but if you dedicate someone’s job and give them a specific role, you will recoup that investment multiple times.”

McNay adds that the person should be properly trained and suited for the position. They need to be as savvy as the donors. The development officer’s duties are complex, ongoing, and relational. They must be detail-oriented, have high emotional intelligence, and be able to work the odd hours required. McNay also says the board and head need to fully support their development officer and realize that development is a long-term process of building and maintaining relationships with donors. While it’s possible, results do not often occur overnight.

The head is the face of the school and a key player in gaining support from donors in fundraising. McNay estimated that 50% of a head’s time should go to fundraising, in particular securing large gifts, a reality that can seem daunting to new heads. Heads are often former academics, so development and business matters may be difficult at first. Heads may be uncomfortable asking for funds, but McNay says they should put those qualms aside and focus on the value the school brings to the community and its families; the school’s story and its mission. They should highlight the school’s students and how donors’ gifts will help support and improve their experience. 

McNay suggests schools tell families about the annual fund or other vehicles during the admissions process so they understand the role of the fund in supporting the school. Also, McNay says she has found over and over that constituents of the school want to support its operations and growth because they see it as tied to the development of their children and grandchildren. The cause is easy to sell, it is simply a matter of asking correctly.

While one may think alumni, wealthy benefactors, or corporations may be large contributors to schools, the largest contributors are current parents. There are two reasons for this – first, they are already deeply involved in the school and in paying for an independent school, show the commitment to their child’s education. This means they are likely open to contributing to the advancement of the school and indirectly to their children’s development. Second, in independent schools, staff and faculty interact with parents daily, so there are multiple chances to build the relationship. This contrasts greatly with McNay’s position at the High Museum of Art, where she only saw her patrons once a month. 

The board’s efforts are also critical in a school’s development efforts. McNay says an ideal board size for fund-raising is around 25 to 30 members. A larger board can be unwieldy and a smaller board incapable of generating enough funds. All board members must lead by example and be willing to make the school one of their top giving priorities while on the board. Also, they must do the work to solicit donors to contribute to the school’s annual fund, capital campaigns, or endowment. 

Training is critical for board members and this is largely accomplished through their relationship with the development officer. McNay suggests exercises like practicing “the ask” or developing their three-minute speech on the value of their school. The development officer should also take initiative in learning about the board members. They should have a close relationship characterized by open communication and trust. The development office is responsible for providing the board with valuable research on potential donors or methods for soliciting funds. McNay also says it can be useful to evaluate board members annually on their fundraising efforts. 

Practice makes perfect, and the head, members of the board, and the development officer should all practice their pitches alone and together. McNay recalls countless times she would practice a pitch with a head of school and board chair in their office, in the car, and all the way to the meeting. The work allowed the group to focus on the need and not their delivery. Gaining a new donor is about having the right person ask for the right amount at the right time. Keeping a donor is also easier than finding a new one, so stewardship of donors is equally important.

A successful “ask” is the culmination of ample time spent developing relationships, doing extensive research, developing the message, and timing the request. While much of our modern day interactions are conducted remotely, fundraising remains a highly personal and relational endeavor. Connecting with the donor and helping them connect with your school is critical. McNay discusses at length the importance of carefully timed letters, thank you notes, and follow-up calls with donors. In the case of high-net-worth donors, they should deal with the same person who originally made the connection. The person should come prepared with details about the donor so they can ask about their family, their children, and/or their grandchildren. McNay would also keep a list of naming opportunities in her memory for donors. She had multiple examples of a donor happily paying or paying more for a naming opportunity. 

The economic environment in the U.S. is fueling a rise in philanthropy, according to a study from the U.S. Trust and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The study found that the average charitable contribution from high-net-worth families and organizations increased 28% between 2013 and 2014. Moreover, the education sector was the biggest winner. Among wealthy donors, 85% gave to education in 2013, and of those numbers, 60% gave specifically to K-12 schools. 

Other key findings from the study involved donors’ expectations. Donors expect that the organizations they give to demonstrate sound business practices (80%), honor their request for privacy and anonymity (78%), and do not distribute their name to others (74%). The top reasons donors stopped giving was they received too frequent solicitations, they were asked for an inappropriate amount (42%), they changed their personal philanthropic focus (35%), they perceived the organization as ineffective (18%), or the organization they supported changed leadership (16%).

The study also explored wealthy households’ top motivations for giving. The top reasons were: wanting to make a difference (74%), personal satisfaction (73%), supporting the same causes annually (66%), giving back to the community (63%), and serving on a non profit board or volunteer organization (62%). 

McNay said the study was encouraging and that the trend bodes well for independent schools in the coming years. She added: “It helps to know the key reasons people donate money: They have money; they believe in your cause; they want to impact other people’s lives; they trust the solicitor; their family has a tradition of giving back; the gift is tax deductible. But the greatest reason people give money is because they are asked!” she writes. 

McNay’s book Fundraising for Schools is a great resource for any school, non profit, or organization looking to improve their development efforts. For more information visit her website.   

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