When it comes to the responsibilities of independent and private school board members, there is often uncertainty about what is expected of them beyond a financial contribution to the campaign. James Greenfield, long-time fundraising executive, addresses this in his book, Fundraising Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards: “Board members are the primary stewards of the nonprofit organization, ultimately responsible for securing adequate resources and overseeing the disposition of those resources. For this reason, a commitment to fundraising must begin with the Board.”

These words by Greenfield are likely to be well understood by most nonprofit board members, but what may not be as readily understood is what that “commitment to fundraising” looks like, and what is entailed when “securing adequate resources.” For independent schools, that commitment often means defining and participating in a capital campaign. For capital campaigns to be successful, the board’s involvement must include achieving a clear understanding of the campaign goal and the case for support, establishing well-defined and articulated roles for the board and school leadership, and owning the campaign plan and timeline. Each piece is essential for a board if it hopes to support an effective campaign.

The Value of a Planning Study 

It is no secret that board generosity is critical to the success of a school’s capital campaign, but all too often campaigns struggle to get off the ground or stall because board members don’t understand or embrace the important aspects of a campaign beyond their own financial commitment. There is often uncertainty surrounding how best to support the Head of School and the advancement team. Of course, for any campaign to be truly successful, one hundred percent commitment from the board and a willingness to consider stretch gifts are vital, but there are other elements that are equally important in ensuring a campaign’s success over time.

No matter what your campaign is aiming to accomplish, it is critically important that a board engages with school leadership in a planning or feasibility study. Nothing will derail a campaign faster than if there’s a lack of understanding, trust, or confidence in the campaign goal and the underlying composition of the gift pyramid. While the goal can (and should) be bold and aspirational, the board needs to understand and participate in a comprehensive, thoughtful process of determining the goal and the structure of the gift pyramid that will define the effort to achieve the goal.

Each board member should participate in the feasibility study or in a conversation that offers feedback on the case elements, as well as some indication of level of support for the campaign. A study helps the board understand the donor base—both its capacity and inclination—and aims to instill confidence in a campaign goal that is realistic and attainable. Without this confidence, committing to the work involved in cultivating, soliciting, and closing gifts will be more difficult and will run the risk of a campaign that will stall or, even worse, fail.

One element of the planning study that can be especially informative for board members in structuring the gift pyramid is predictive modeling. Specifically, understanding the implications of an RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary) analysis of a donor base that segments the base into categories that give a clear sense of capacity to give and affinity toward the institution. This type of analysis and the information it yields can be invaluable to board members because it can help them understand how an attainable campaign goal is established, and perhaps more importantly, the path to reaching that goal.

Understanding the Narrative of the Mission

One of the most important aspects of involving board members in a planning study is familiarizing them with the case elements of the campaign. Campaigns are often bogged down when there is a lack of clarity or shared understanding of the important case elements. The board’s understanding needs to move beyond a mere description of the various elements. For example, it is not enough to simply know that endowment for financial aid is part of the campaign; board members should have anecdotal examples of the power of the financial aid program in supporting the mission of the school.

The board should be able to offer compelling, mission-appropriate examples of students who have enriched the life of the school because of the opportunity created by financial aid. It is more effective to share a specific vision for how growing this endowment will enhance the school and support the mission going forward. While this may seem daunting, the commitment to learning these stories and sharing them with the donor community is incredibly powerful. While it’s wonderful to host or to attend an event, it is much more compelling if board members can speak with enthusiasm, specificity, and conviction about the impact of the gifts to the various case elements.

Seeing the Road Ahead

Understanding both the planning and case elements of the campaign will also help provide a clear roadmap for reaching the campaign goal. Not having a clear, collectively understood plan to raise the money can be problematic. The board plays a critical role in helping to shape this plan by establishing leadership roles and assigning specific trustees to play those roles. It is important to choose campaign chairs who will be comfortable soliciting gifts and who will be able to devote time to spend with potential donors. Each board member needs to attend or host events and cultivate and steward donors. Additionally, it is always a good idea for board members to pay attention to how campaign plans are designed or carried out by peer or aspirant peer schools.

The board needs to work alongside the Head of School and advancement staff to establish and, ultimately, to approve the campaign plan. But, more importantly, the entire board needs to understand the plan and have the leadership in place to adhere to the plan. Given the demands on the Head and the unforeseen issues that may consume his or her time, the board needs to support the Head by working closely with the advancement team to ensure that the plan is carefully created, communicated, and executed by each member. When boards commit to knowing the plan and having the discipline to follow it, they greatly increase the likelihood that the campaign will be a success. Additionally, when board members are deeply familiar with the institution’s plan, it not only improves their ability to ask, but can also inspire them when it comes to their own gift.

Part of this plan is also developing a clear, intentional timeline. All campaigns go through peaks and valleys— times of great momentum and lulls—so understanding the campaign timeline, particularly when asking for leadership gifts, will mean that the campaign stays on course. Board members need to be active partners in building the donor pipeline by opening doors and cultivating potential donors, but it is a willingness to ask those donors to join them in support of the campaign that will ensure steady progress and ultimate success.

Campaigns can be intimidating in both scale and scope, but success is attainable when a board understands its role beyond its own financial generosity. Being well-organized, committed to the goal, well-versed in the case elements, and disciplined in following a plan will go a long way in keeping a board unified and cohesive as it fulfills its responsibility “to secure adequate resources” and realize campaign success.


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

Writing a case for support can be a daunting and sometimes overwhelming task. As organizations prepare for a campaign, they are often faced with competing priorities, varying levels of detail, and limited resources. However, an effective case can excite, compel, and inspire your donors to dream big and raise their philanthropic sights. The case is the guiding document upon which the entire narrative of your campaign is built. In other words, its importance cannot be overstated.

Overcoming Common Challenges – Potential Missteps to Avoid

Misunderstanding the Purpose – An early mistake in writing your case is to misunderstand the purpose of this document during the initial drafting process. The case is not a stand-alone document. It should be designed with the intention of being accompanied by a personal visit from a volunteer or leader of your organization. In addition, the case is the basis for all other documents in the campaign. Directly from the text of your case, you will develop your campaign website, major gift proposals, campaign brochures, stewardship documents, and other collateral. You will also reutilize the design elements to create a cohesive set of supporting materials, such as your gift agreement form, request letters, or mailings. Therefore, the content, tone, and design should be carefully developed with buy-in from leadership and key stakeholders early in the planning stages of a major effort.

Forgetting the Audience – When writing the case, a common mistake is to not consider the recipient. The case is not a financial statement, strategic plan, or organizational manifesto. It should be written with real donors in mind. It should include an emotional appeal for why the project matters and convey the impact a prospective donor can make through participation. At its core, the case should show how the donor can be the hero in transforming his or her community by making a philanthropic investment.

Lacking Good Design or Editing – Perhaps the challenge that can be most easily addressed is avoiding errors within a case for support. Poorly edited or designed documents detract from the gravity of the project and the impact it will have for an organization and can make it painfully clear that not enough time and effort was spent on the case. To avoid this misstep, proofread your document at every turn, and ask others internally to read it carefully before presenting it externally. Similarly, a poorly designed document reflects a lack of effort or thought on the part of the organization. Case statements should be visually appealing to grab the readers’ attention and convey the importance of a campaign.

Where to Begin?

Strategic Priorities – Knowing how to begin drafting a case is a challenge that many organizations face. Before anything ever reaches paper, there are internal discussions and decisions that shape a major fundraising effort. This may include strategic planning or a visioning sessions, which can be a natural guide for developing funding priorities. Some organizations are compelled by a desire to do too much and, as a result, find out too late that they should narrow their focus and better prioritize funding their needs and wants. Other organizations may limit their capabilities too severely by underestimating their reach or by insufficiently conveying their missions. It is therefore important to think strategically from the onset to avoid these pitfalls.

Feasibility or Planning Study – Often, conducting a feasibility and planning study can help uncover funding priorities that resonate with your donors. These studies provide your organization the opportunity to ask stakeholders what is important to them and to determine your community’s appetite for funding various projects.

Cost Estimates and Impact Analysis – Other key areas of planning should include creating cost estimates and quantifying impact. Savvy donors will be influenced both by the cost of funding different projects and by what impact their gift can have on your organization and the community you serve. Your organization should be prepared to present this information in the case. These early steps should be taken internally with a small strategic planning committee or your board. Once you have a general outline of your plan and funding needs, it is then time to begin writing your case.

The Solution – Four Initial Steps

1. Gather and Organize Your Information – Start where you are. Gather the information you currently have about your plans, funding areas, and costs. Cast a wide net to collect all relevant information and documentation that you may need in writing your case. This includes:

  • Organizational information (i.e. mission, vision, strategic plan, branding guidelines)
  • Program or project details/schematics
  • Cost estimates
  • Impact stories
  • Quotes
  • Photos / renderings / visuals

Categorizing and organizing your information before you begin writing will reveal where gaps exist and allow you to begin outlining your content and vision in a way that makes sense and is true to your organization.

2. Create a Comprehensive Outline – After you have collected your information, begin by creating an outline of the content of your case statement. To start, it can be helpful to answer the following questions using the information you collected in Step 1:

  • What issues does your organization target (mission)?
  • What are the strengths of your organization?
  • What is the challenge or obstacle you are facing?
  •  How do you propose to overcome this obstacle? What is your plan?
  • How will you get there? What are your funding needs?
  • What will be the impact of fulfilling those funding needs? How will this create a change in the community?
  • What are you asking of the donor?

Your outline should include relevant details but should also be a relatively high-level overview of the organization, the challenge you are facing, your vision for the future, and the impact the donor can have. Include the most important information and leave out specifics that are irrelevant for your audience.

3. Write a Compelling Story – At the center, the prospective donor should be the protagonist of an engaging story. Using the outline created in Step 2, begin to supplement your content with compelling language that motivates your prospective donors to see themselves as an active participant in overcoming your organization’s challenges. An effective case will include an accurate description of how the donor will create transformational change in the community through his or her participation. Drafting the language to carefully consider word choice and tone will help to bring the story to life. The closing should incorporate a “call to action,” a final invitation that propels the donors along the engagement pipeline.

4. Design an Engaging Document – The appearance of your document can significantly impact the way your donor views the campaign. In fact, according to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, more than 46 percent of people say design was the primary criterion for determining a company’s credibility. After creating a compelling story, you should begin designing your document. A well-designed case can elevate, or conversely damage, how donors perceive the importance of a fundraising effort. Your organization may have already defined branding guidelines. If so, utilize these to ensure your case is recognizable and aligned with your organizational culture. If you have limited resources, designing your document can seem like a challenge; however, keeping the following in mind will make the process much less daunting:

  • You don’t need to be a professional designer or use design software. You can design using PowerPoint and draw inspiration by searching for other case statements in your search engine.
  • Be consistent with the size of your text, margins, alignment and other small details. Uniformity will demonstrate professionalism and the importance of this document to your prospective donors.
  • By using high-quality photos, we can convey information more quickly. Using a well-placed photo can be more impactful than text content. If your organization doesn’t have high-resolution images on hand, consider taking new photos or using compelling stock photos that align with your mission.
  • Use design elements such as bolding, titles, text boxes, and color to emphasize important information.

What to Remember When Getting Started

Writing a compelling case for support will not happen overnight. Achieving your best case will require meticulous planning, drafting, designing, and editing. This process will involve a concentrated effort from staff members and volunteers. Along the way, you should share iterations of the case with other team members, volunteers, and prospective donors. Asking your stakeholders for feedback and building consensus throughout the development of the case will prevent setbacks and build familiarity with the case throughout the organization. Likewise, following the aforementioned steps sequentially is important. Jumping ahead is counterproductive and can create additional work and redrafting.

As you begin, keep impact at the front of your mind. Drafting your case can seem overwhelming, but it is also exciting. You are embarking on a process that can create a ripple effect in your community and impact your organization for years to come. Bring that passion, excitement, and vision for the future with you as you sit down at your table and begin crafting a compelling case.


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

We all know that large, transformational gifts can positively impact a parish’s mission and its community for generations to come. They can spark a fundraising campaign to new heights and can help build momentum to achieve aspirational goals. But how do you go about attracting such gifts?

The answer requires a few more questions.

Do you know who in your parish has the most giving potential? Do you know families who could be major givers but are not currently donating at that level? These donors have the means to make transformational gifts to your parish, but they need to be cultivated and invited to do so. Understanding how to go about both identifying and growing your relationships with these donors are the most important keys to success, and it may take shifting the way you approach fundraising strategy altogether.

First, it is crucial to not overlook the importance of major donors whether you are in a campaign, in between, or just getting started. Consider the fact that in America, 91 percent [1] of high net worth individuals—those who have investable assets of $1 million or more—donate to charity, compared to 56 percent [2] of the general population. More importantly, high net worth households give the most to religion over any other philanthropic sector. The most recent data shows that over 36 percent [3] of these households give to religious causes.

Overcoming Common Challenges

While the numbers show that these types of donors may consider supporting your mission, parish leaders can often feel apprehensive about how to approach these relationships. Developing a positive mindset about why you are undertaking this aspect of ministry can seem challenging, but it’s important to understand how philanthropy and the message of the Catholic Church are related. Father Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, wrote astutely about the spiritual dimension of fundraising for the church:

“Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, ‘Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.’ Rather, we are declaring, ‘We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you—your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.’ Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like ‘trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither’ (Ps. 1:3).”

In addition to understanding the role that fundraising plays, simply becoming more informed about who your donors are and how they may want to contribute in the future will ease any discomfort about discussing their potential contributions with them.

A few years ago, at the beginning stage of a major diocesan fundraising campaign in the Midwest, CCS Fundraising recommended to the presbyterate that each parish should identify those families who could be asked to consider leadership gifts of six-figures or more for their parish campaigns. A senior priest raised his hand and declared that he had never once looked at what people gave and would not start now for this campaign.

The Bishop provided an immediate and effective response. He replied that if you don’t know where a person is regarding their relationship to the church, how can you minister to them? This sparked a great discussion about what each parish did know about their parishioners. It was discovered in the process that followed that there were several high net worth individuals who gave often to the church but at levels well below their means. The reason was two-fold: no one had done the research to know their potential to make a transformational gift, and they weren’t asked.

Chances are, through open and honest conversations with these donors, your goals to help others in your community will be aligned. They will also understand the role they can play in making these goals a reality.

Taking a Closer Look

Understanding who your potentially impactful parishioners are is an important first step. One way to begin is to conduct a review of the past three years of individual offertory contributions from your parish. Then, make a list of your top 10 or 20 financial supporters during this time period. Once your list is complete, make note of your current relationships with these donors. Ask yourself, how well do we know these families? Are they also engaged in other parish ministries or on the financial council or pastoral council? Making note of these criteria will help you identify who is already heavily involved and who could benefit from further outreach.

The next step is to identify other families who you may perceive to have significant financial resources but whose offertory support may not reflect their potential capacity. This may take further work. While it is a significant challenge to know with specificity any family’s financial circumstances, some indicators of strong financial potential can be estimated from occupations.

Individuals who own businesses, are senior executives at larger companies, or work in highly- compensated professions in medicine, banking, finance, or the law constitute many of the larger donors to churches and other nonprofit organizations.

Another way to gain a better understanding is to perform what’s called a wealth screening analysis to help identify families who have outsized capacity that may not arise from looking only at their offertory or occupation. Even if you are not planning a major campaign, such an exercise can help you identify families flying below the radar and allow you to engage them more deeply in the work of the parish.

Once you have compiled a list of families that are either currently giving large amounts or, based on perceived capacity, might be amenable to increasing their support, rank them by whether you know them well, know them in passing, or have not met them at all.

Developing Strategies

Families You Know Well

Look to how engaged they are in the life of the parish. Are they on councils, engaged in ministries, or involved in other parish-based groups such as the Knights of Columbus? If not, consider meeting with them to explore other ways their gifts could be used to help the parish. This is an opportunity to share with them your vision for the parish and to learn their own thoughts and vision for where the parish is headed.

Families You Know in Passing

Seek ways to get to know them better. Consider inviting them out to a meal or for coffee. This will give you an opportunity to come to know them better and to understand how they view the parish. Can they be invited to join a ministry or a council? Are there ways they can become more engaged in the parish? Do they have suggestions or feedback for your vision that you hadn’t considered? It will also be helpful to find out where they are in regard to their faith journey. If they are interested, see if there might be a ministry or service role that would appeal to them.

Potentially Impactful Families You Don’t Know

Consider asking other families in the parish with whom you have established a good relationship if they know them and can facilitate an introduction. From there, you can apply the same conversation as you did for those you know in passing.

The Importance of Stewardship

Remember that successful philanthropy is a relationship, not a transaction. Just as you do with other families you get to know, learn details about them and show you appreciate them. Send a birthday card or anniversary card. Recognize a child’s accomplishments. Greet them by name after Mass. Additionally, thank them. Not everyone is looking to have their name on a wall or to be publicly acknowledged, but everyone likes to be thanked. Even a simple phone call or note of appreciation can make a huge difference.

Once you have identified families with extraordinary financial resources and start taking the first steps to implementing a strategy, you can begin inviting them on the journey of fulfilling the vision of the parish and the church.

[1] Bank of America: U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, 2016 

[2] IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy: Philanthropy Panel Study, 2017

[3] Bank of America: U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy, 2016


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

A focused feasibility and planning study is an essential early step in campaign planning for higher education institutions. Rather than providing a simple “yes or no” answer about whether or not to move forward with a campaign, a truly valuable study serves several purposes: it provides early feedback on the case for support and campaign goal, identifies potential volunteer leaders and financial prospects, and serves as early cultivation of an organization’s top stakeholders. For colleges and universities, which tend to have broad campaign priorities and many prospect constituencies, a strong planning study is a first step in bringing your community together to support what will be a transformational initiative. However, without thoroughly planning the study, there is the potential to waste time and resources, and miss opportunities to strengthen your campaign in the long run.

Start with a Strategic Plan

While the study provides an opportunity to test a very early version of case elements and uncover the areas your donors find most attractive, the strongest case for support will align with your institution’s strategic plan, even at this early stage.

The strategic plan – typically designed over time by a group of stakeholders including administrative leaders, board members, key faculty and staff, alumni, parents, and sometimes even students – outlines the institutional priorities of the school. The campaign is the vehicle that will fund that plan and make those priorities a reality.

Knowing that your case is built on a strategic plan gives your study participants the confidence that the initial step of determining priorities has already been accomplished and that the school’s leaders are behind it. It also helps ensure that no matter how much your college or university is transformed by the campaign, it will still adhere to its mission and goals.

Think Outside the Box

A planning study will include personal discussions, or interviews, with key stakeholders. While you want to include many opinions, and meet with your most valuable stakeholders, the goal should not be to interview as many people as possible. Instead, prioritize finding the right people. Focus on who is best-suited to discuss the school’s strengths and challenges and who will have important insights into the school’s ability to embark on such a major initiative.

While your discussion subjects should include board members, top donor prospects, and close friends of the institution, there is opportunity to think more creatively as well. Consider including up-and-coming potential board members, active alumni, or others who know your school well even if they aren’t (yet) significant donors. Also make sure to meet with anyone whose financial participation could greatly sway the campaign goal amount or initiatives.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to include people who have expressed frustrations in the past. Often, providing the opportunity for a one-on-one discussion is a valuable way to allow that person to vent his or her frustrations and provide honest feedback. Rather than closing the door on these prospects, this enables school leaders and the development team to keep the conversation going.

Remember: This is Cultivation

Don’t think of the planning study as a precursor to campaign planning, but rather as an important component of campaign planning. The cultivation aspect sometimes gets lost, but it is a critical piece of setting the school up for success. There are a few things you can do to help turn a study interview into a cultivation opportunity.

For starters, be sure to find out from those conducting the study if the participant has any immediate concerns or complaints that need to be addressed. If so, forward them on to the appropriate person. If the participant has questions that can be answered now, such as requesting more information about a current program, be timely in your follow up.

Finally, don’t forget to say thank you! Although most of the study discussion content will likely be kept private, a member of the school’s development or administrative team should follow up to thank each participant as soon as their discussion is complete. Thank them again once the study is over and be sure to keep them informed of any major decisions along the way.

Preparation is Key

A feasibility and planning study is the first step to setting your college or university on the path to a campaign. Go into the study with your homework done. Identify your main priorities and goals, keep an open mind to engaging participants, and have a cultivation mindset throughout. The advice you receive from the study may contain surprises and your case may shift based on the study results, but thoughtful preparation will ensure a solid start to your campaign.


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

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An effective case can excite, compel, and inspire your donors to raise their philanthropic sights. It is the guiding document upon which the entire narrative of your campaign is built. However, writing this impactful story can be a daunting task, below are 5 tips to keep in mind.

  1. Confirm your strategic priorities
  • Before you put pen to paper ensure that all internal stakeholders are in agreement regarding the funding focus for your organisation.
  • Include programmes that have a strong rationale for support and will deliver impact which can be shared with donors.
  • Plan out the financial requirements that you will include in your case document in order to demonstrate the strong need for philanthropic support.
  1. Consider how your case document will be used
  • The case should not be a stand-alone document but rather designed with the intention of being accompanied by a personal visit/conversation from someone in your organisation.
  • Content should be able to be re-purposed later for proposal documents and supporting materials for cultivation activity, therefore, the language, tone, and design should be carefully developed.
  • Think about how you will share the document; will you use hard copies, send it electronically or both? Knowing this at the beginning may impact design decisions.
  1. Think about the audience
  • The strongest case documents are written with real donors in mind and aim to give them a first-hand insight into the organisation.
  • Your case should include an emotional appeal for why the programmes included matter and convey the difference a prospective donor can make through participation. Using testimonials from your beneficiaries allows them to hear directly about the impact they could have.
  • At its core, your case should show how the donor can play a transformational role by making a philanthropic investment.
  1. Give time to design
  • A visually attractive and compelling document will instantly engage a reader and portray your organisation in the strongest light.
  • Try to access good quality images which reflect your priorities and think about how you can tell your story with visuals and infographics to break up text and convey important messages.
  • Be consistent with font size, colour palette and layout to ensure a coherent look overall.
  1. Finalising your case document
  • Check and check again to make sure that you are utilising the most compelling language and importantly that there are no spelling or grammar errors.
  • If you have time, it can be beneficial to take a few days away from the document before reviewing again with a fresh perspective, similarly asking members of your team or colleagues to review can also be very helpful.
  • Once you have completed a high-quality case, consider ‘testing’ it with people close to your organisation to gain initial feedback before finalising your document.

Culture: It’s complicated.

“Culture” is ubiquitous, although that does not mean it is easy to define. Instead, “culture” presents a challenge when we try to change it without buy-in from essential stakeholders. Understanding that every organization has a particular culture, whether or not stakeholders acknowledge it, is crucial in formulating a fundraising strategy. Before describing an ideal “culture of philanthropy,” it may be helpful to refer to a few underlying assumptions about culture:

  • All organizations have it
  • It’s a powerful source of communication inside and outside of the organization
  • It can be detrimental if not aligned with the well-being of the institution
  • It can – and should – be measured [1]

It should be no surprise, then, that the first step towards developing a dynamic and successful advancement office is to articulate how philanthropy allows institutions to realize key tenets of culture that they bring into reality every day.

Developing a culture around philanthropy within an independent school, especially, is a little more complicated than merely speaking it into reality. Schools increasingly rely on the generosity of current and former students as well as their families, and can be especially at-risk for missed opportunities if they do not appeal to the collective values of these stakeholders. Advancement offices have also seen improvements in external fundraising when internal stakeholders, like faculty and staff, choose to participate.

Models for Understanding Philanthropy’s Role in Culture

Independent schools operate as complex, adaptive systems, and they must if they hope to respond to the critical needs of the communities they serve. [2] Culture and philanthropy’s role in these institutions can be equally as complicated, and the consequences of inconsonance can alienate and drive away existing and prospective supporters.

Thankfully, systems thinking approaches like the Vision, Mission, Capacity, and Learning (VMCL) model, championed by Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera of the Cabrera Research Lab at Cornell University, make it easier to analyze, understand, and implement a culture of philanthropy.

The VMCL model suggests that culture is derived from these four functions:

  • Vision: The vision is short, simple, inspiring, and measurable. It is a desired future state for your organization.
  • Mission: The mission describes actions done repeatedly to realize the vision. Mission statements clearly state who does what for whom, and are clear, concise, measurable, and easily understood.
  • Capacity: Capacity describes the critical systems essential to realizing vision and should be easily understood and measured.
  • Learning: Learning is the continuous process that enhances an organization’s collective ability to accept, make sense of, and respond to internal and external change. [3]

Where VMCL helps us understand philanthropic culture, Cultural Moves Management [4] helps us change it. Shifting the way stakeholders perceive philanthropy and their role in it encourages detractors to become supporters.

Most of your organization’s supporters are considered cultural “adopters” and tend to be the largest sub-group of supporters. They are passionate, reliable, and motivated by external and internal factors. [5] A smaller group of your supporters are cultural “leaders,” who serve as visionaries and should be enlisted as cultural ambassadors. To continue their work in advocating the culture, cultural leaders in the organization should receive ongoing stewardship for their support. Adopters, alternatively, can be transitioned into cultural leaders through ongoing investment and incentives.

Detractors of your organization’s culture are most often “fence-sitters” – they tend to be passive, undecided, and skeptical. [6] Fence-sitters are waiting to see what’s going to happen, so you want to avoid rewarding this behavior. Instead, show them the benefits of joining and adopting the culture. Use assorted communications that demonstrate for fence-sitters that on the side of corporate culture is the right place to be. They will get rewards, have fun, gain a sense of purpose and belonging, and ultimately could love what they’re doing.

A smaller group are “naysayers,” who are oppositional, misinformed, or combative. [7] Because they may have legitimate complaints, naysayers should have an opportunity to share grievances. Sometimes naysayers can even become cultural proponents, but other times, leaders may confront staunch opposition to change. In this instance, they should redirect the naysayers’ energy and avoid letting them set the agenda with their opposition.

Regardless of where your stakeholders fall in cultural moves management, it’s critical to give them each the time and support needed to legitimize their experience and foster a sense of buy-in for your institution’s success.

Cultural Moves Management and Avoiding Obstacles

The case of a 100-year-old military school serves as an example to better understand potential obstacles when creating a culture of philanthropy. One particular pitfall of the advancement team at this school was not spending enough energy engaging alumni, students, and families through social media. Cabrera and Cabrera say that the most successful organizations are the ones that can easily communicate their vision, internally and externally. Independent schools can facilitate organizational learning by exposing stakeholders to a diverse array of resources like social media and online videos. Twitter and Instagram helped the school create the capacity for cultural formulation by instantly sharing essential information and updates. Once senior leadership at the military school embraced the use of these mediums and conveyed a sense of urgency around their fundraising initiatives, they actively engaged more alumni to participate in their annual Day of Giving. Cultural inculcation occurred organically, as retweets, reposts, and likes were continuously monitored and measured for their impact.

The military school was also able to mitigate the mistake of developing an overly-complicated mission statement that would only confuse its stakeholders. The goal of any mission statement should be to clearly and concisely explain the actions required to bring about the change action that the school is working towards. Verbose mission statements often have the opposite effect intended. If they are too long and unfocused, the reader will have difficulty walking away with a clear sense of the school’s most pressing needs. Instead, this school simply stated its most important mandates and quickly explained why they required immediate attention and resources. Simple. Clear. Concise.

Finally, a renewed commitment from the military school to celebrate every volunteer leader went a long way towards developing a compassionate culture of philanthropy. These cultural champions were lauded and served as examples for other alumni, parents, teachers, and community members as people willing to go the extra mile to ensure that all of the school’s fundraising initiatives were successful. Creating compelling incentives such as a “Joint Chief’s Circle,” or asking an alumnus to consider moving from the “Captain’s Circle” to join the “Major’s Circle,” was a creative way to showcase the school’s corps of donors. When these organizational leaders were properly recognized and heralded as visionaries, they were more likely to demonstrate repeated buy-in and open new doors to engage the community in every philanthropic endeavor.

Changing Culture: The Value of Buy-In

Another example is a small independent school in Virginia where kids with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other differences have discovered a love for learning since the early 1970’s. The vision of the school is to build a community where all students, regardless of learning differences, can realize their full potential, and their mission to provide multisensory education for each individual’s academic and social achievement is nurtured by faculty and staff every day.

Philanthropy, however, was not as easily adopted. Giving to previous annual fund campaigns fell flat, with only 20% of faculty and staff giving at any point in the school’s history. While teaching methodologies and technologies employed at the school have changed, the home that they have built in a re-purposed church has remained the same for several decades. Many of the school’s faculty and staff would be classified as “fence-sitters” when it came to a culture of philanthropy: teaching in outdated classrooms with noisy air-conditioning equipment, they were skeptical and didn’t see the value of their gift.

With new leadership and a five-year-old development department, the school decided to embark on its first-ever capital campaign to enhance and expand the campus. While philanthropic outreach is blossoming among a variety of stakeholders, faculty and staff participation presented a unique challenge for the school.

Knowing how valuable faculty and staff participation is to a capital campaign, development leaders set out to change the perspectives of their colleagues. They started by renovating two model classrooms to serve as examples for the future, and then organized cultural “leaders” from the faculty to serve as volunteers for the campaign.

Most importantly: the campaign was about meeting a goal for participation, and not a dollar amount. This aligned with the school’s collaborative values, and the elements of the campaign spoke to faculty and staff needs and the needs of their students.

Early “adopters” of the capital campaign were rewarded with fun incentives for participating: the Head of School hand-delivered morning beverages, participants enjoyed a special adult-only lunch, and teachers were given a flexible hour for joining the effort. “Fence-sitters” – and possibly a few quiet “naysayers” – witnessed the shift happening among their colleagues and began to reconsider their own attitude towards philanthropy.

By the end of the campaign period, 100% of staff participated, demonstrating unprecedented endorsement towards the capital campaign.

Key Takeaways

The objective of cultural moves management is to encourage detractors to become supporters. From the real-world successes and challenges of these two independent schools, we identify important takeaways to align primary and secondary academic culture with philanthropy:

  1. Philanthropy must be rooted in the organizational culture to resonate with donors.
  2. Leadership sets the foundation for positive overall and philanthropic culture.
  3. Values must be communicated, early and often, to students, parents, and members of faculty, administration, staff, and teachers.
  4. Measuring desired outcomes, like participation or elevated giving, will strengthen perceptions of culture.

So, how strong is your culture?

One simple test is to ask your essential stakeholders what your mission statement is. If they cannot recall, then it might be time to revisit how your school communicates its strategic vision. When your stakeholders can recite your mission without hesitation, that is good indication that your organization is well on its way towards developing a culture of philanthropy, thus empowering your school to mold the leaders of tomorrow.


CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

[1] Cabrera, Derek, and Laura Cabrera. Flock Not Clock: Design, Align, and Lead to Achieve Your Vision, Plectica LLC, May 29, 2018. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Think Water. (2015). VMCL: Build an Adaptive Organization. Retrieved from: https://fyi.uwex.edu/programdevelopment/files/2016/03/VMCL-Guide.pdf

[5] Cabrera, Derek, and Laura Cabrera. Flock Not Clock: Design, Align, and Lead to Achieve Your Vision, Plectica LLC, May 29, 2018. Print.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

When working with a 2,000-year-old institution, there is a tendency to think that there is nothing new under the sun. This way of thinking is often magnified in a parish setting where staff and volunteers have served for many years and are accustomed to working with limited and often antiquated resources. Many parishes still rely exclusively on the bulletin and pulpit announcement to communicate with parishioners, but there are a variety of newer technologies available at relatively low cost that can dramatically enhance the effectiveness of parish communications, particularly during a fundraising campaign. 

Some of these tools include email systems that can send thousands of personalized messages in a few seconds, electronic survey forms, recorded phone messages, and mass text message services. These resources make it possible for a pastor who might have hundreds or even thousands of families in his parish to engage every parishioner in a dynamic way.

As parish leaders take the first steps to implementing these programs, they should bear in mind that technology is not meant to supplant personal encounters; it is meant to facilitate them. By incorporating new tools into a parish’s communications and fundraising plans, pastors and volunteers can reach out to a large audience of parishioners in ways that are both faster and more personal than previously imagined.

The Challenge

When parish leaders consider the possibility of adopting new tools to engage parishioners, they generally focus on three challenges:

  1. How will we implement something new with our limited technological background?
  2. Once we do set something up, who will manage the system?
  3. Will the results be worth the investment of time and money?

The first step to overcoming these challenges is very often simply being open to trying something new. The second step is sitting down with someone with deep knowledge of these tools and best practices to gain an understanding of how to move forward. From there, the technology is actually simpler than one might think. If someone can use a smartphone, type into a Word document, and make a list in Excel, he or she can likely manage one of these resources.

Case Study: Saint Rose of Lima in Newtown, CT

During a recent parish capital campaign at Saint Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, CCS worked with the pastor, parish staff, and campaign volunteers to design a plan that introduced new communications tools to a traditional parish fundraising model. This plan enabled the campaign, We Stand With Christ: An Invitation to Faith & Fellowship, to engage over a third of Saint Rose’s 3,600 families in a personal and dynamic way in less than five months’ time.

Getting Started

At first, the pastor, Msgr. Robert Weiss, was reluctant to try these new tools in large part because he was unfamiliar with them. However, Msgr. Weiss quickly recognized that to engage such a large parish in a short period of time would require some new ideas. Saint Rose had some experience with Constant Contact, an email automation platform, but they used Constant Contact almost exclusively to communicate with religious education and youth group families and not to communicate with the parish at large.

During a campaign feasibility study, the Saint Rose staff collected more than 2,500 parish email addresses and 4,195 phone numbers (including 1,358 cell phone numbers) from the parish database and through an in-pew update of contact information.

“The online feasibility study enabled us to receive responses from over 900 parishioner families, the results of which gave us a clear direction for the campaign,” said Msgr. Weiss. “Tracking requests, pledges, gifts, and even those not able to participate in the campaign helped move the campaign forward in a very orderly fashion.”

With this list, the parish was well-prepared to implement some new communications vehicles.

E-Survey

During Saint Rose’s feasibility study, in addition to 76 one-on-one meetings, nearly 900 parishioners were able to offer their feedback on the parish’s campaign plans through an electronic survey. Msgr. Weiss sent a personal invitation to every parishioner for whom the parish had an email address, and about 35 percent of those invited participated in the e-survey.

Personalized Emails

Following the feasibility study, Saint Rose launched its capital campaign with a working goal of $5 million. From the early stages of the campaign, the parish made good use of its Constant Contact account to engage volunteers, initiate personal visits, and communicate with the broader parish community. Msgr. Weiss emailed parishioners who had indicated that they would be willing to serve as campaign volunteers to invite them to an orientation, and he sent a preparatory email to each family who would receive a call from a volunteer about a personal visit.

“Emails were sent as a way to educate and engage parishioners throughout the campaign. To have access to lists of donors, pledge and gift information, and to be able to track payments has made the project move forward in a very positive way,” said Msgr. Weiss.

Using email during the quiet phase of the campaign dramatically improved the speed of communications. Rather than waiting for letters to arrive by mail and then hoping they had been read, campaign leadership knew immediately when an email had been read, and a volunteer could follow up with that parishioner within hours, not days. This strategy allowed Msgr. Weiss and campaign volunteers to have a personal visit with over 330 parishioners before announcing the campaign.

During the public phase, Msgr. Weiss sent regular updates on campaign progress, and he used targeted email messages to encourage those who had not yet replied to make their pledge. He was even able to include a direct link in the email to pledge online.

Voice Broadcasts

Twice during the public phase of the campaign, Msgr. Weiss recorded a message that was broadcasted to every parishioner’s phone number. Recording the message itself was as simple as dialing a phone number and leaving a voicemail, and the broadcasts proved extremely effective at encouraging parishioners to return their pledge card. About 30 percent of parishioners who were called answered live (the others received voicemail messages), and many commented on how much they appreciated the personal touch of hearing Msgr. Weiss’s voice.

Announcement Weekend Check-In

On the weekend Msgr. Weiss announced the campaign publicly, Saint Rose organized the distribution of personalized campaign materials after every Mass. This “old school” approach was enlivened with a “new school” twist: Saint Rose rented iPads for its volunteers to use an app called Zkipster to check in those parishioners who picked up their materials. Once checked in, parishioners automatically received an email thanking them for picking up their packet and encouraging them to return their pledge card by a certain date.

The tech resources for the weekend cost about $1,200, and by Sunday evening, Saint Rose had distributed personalized campaign materials to 626 parishioners. Of that group, 70 percent made a gift to the campaign, totaling $3.4 million. In fact, in just the 10 days following announcement weekend, Saint Rose raised about $1.5 million. Furthermore, those parishioners who received materials after Mass were 10 times more likely to make a gift to the campaign than those who received material through the mail.

Text Message Reminders

In the final days leading up to the parish’s in-pew commitment weekend, Msgr. Weiss sent a brief text message to every parishioner who had not yet made a pledge with a reminder to bring his or her pledge card to Mass that weekend. The ease and instantaneousness of text messaging allowed this message to be sent a few hours before the weekend’s first Mass. Over the course of commitment weekend, the text message reminder proved very effective: nearly four times as many parishioners brought their pledge card from home as those who filled out a generic card in the pew.

The Results

The use of new technologies during Saint Rose’s campaign enabled Msgr. Weiss and parish volunteers to communicate in a personal way to the vast majority of Saint Rose’s 3,600 parish families. Because the tools Saint Rose used were able to track in real-time who had received a message or made a pledge, communications could be further personalized based on whether a parishioner had already made a gift or was still considering a commitment.

These new tools enabled the campaign to proceed with speed and precision, and they helped to keep excitement high during the public phase of the campaign. Ultimately, Saint Rose exceeded its initial campaign goal by over $1 million, raising about $6.1 million on their $5 million working goal.

Moreover, by the close of Saint Rose’s campaign, both Msgr. Weiss and two parish staff members were exceedingly more familiar with the technological resources available to them. This experience enabled them to engage more effectively a small committee of parishioners who had formed to focus on enhancing the parish’s overall communications strategy. Partially inspired by the success of the campaign, Saint Rose is now working to develop a new parish website and to expand its social media presence.

Three First Steps for Any Parish

While the case study of Saint Rose’s campaign demonstrates how a parish can implement a comprehensive communications strategy to enhance its fundraising efforts, parishes can begin taking advantage of these new tools for a variety of purposes. Even if a parish is not preparing to launch a fundraising campaign, implementing these tools can facilitate broader parishioner engagement and potentially lay the groundwork for more personalized campaign communications down the road.

Here are three strategies that any parish with a list of phone numbers and email addresses can begin to implement immediately:

  1. Send a personalized email from the pastor or other parish leaders to all parishioners on a regular basis (weekly, biweekly, or monthly). Depending upon the frequency, the email might contain a spiritual reflection, a Q&A, an update on parish activities, or a witness from a parishioner.
  2. Record a message of gratitude from the pastor around Thanksgiving or the parish’s patronal feast and broadcast it to all parishioners’ phone numbers. Pastors who have tried this strategy have been overwhelmed by the positive response from their parishioners.
  3. Send a text message announcement before a special event to parishioners’ cell phone numbers. It might contain a reminder of the Christmas or Holy Week Mass schedule or encourage parishioners to attend a parish festival.

In a world where parishioners of every age are increasingly tech-savvy, parishes have much to gain by implementing new communications tools.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

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An institution’s mission cannot be fulfilled if the alignment of its governance and financial health is off. Money cannot be raised if the people in charge have been placed in a position to fail from the beginning. The stakes of having the right people at the top are high in all nonprofit sectors, and as organizational leaders, it’s important that we help them succeed.

Revenue for nonprofits is primarily steered by financial gifts that come from the board. When you factor in board members who make introductions and help request gifts, the board’s total fundraising impact is even greater. Regardless of what your mission is, or how many board members you have, there are three actionable practices to use right away that will ensure that your board will be successful in raising funds.

1. Identify and Recruit Strong Fundraising Board Members

The strongest boards include people with a variety of backgrounds and skillsets. Requesting gifts might not be for everyone, but just as inclination to give is a common requirement for board service, inclination to ask is also important. Organizations of all sizes should look for potential board members who are willing to help with fundraising, along with donor stewardship and cultivation.  

How do you know who will be willing to ask? Develop opportunities to “test” potential board members. Advisory boards, alumni organizations, campaign committees, or smaller task forces focused on a specific issue are excellent ways to get to know volunteers and see them in action. Like a job interview, this kind of role also gives the volunteer the opportunity to see if a higher-level leadership role is right for them. Both the organization and the volunteers should know what they’re getting into before official board service begins.

Look for volunteers who, first and foremost, are committed to your institution and your mission. Beyond this, identify potential board members who are comfortable around the idea of fundraising. Those who give to your organization regularly, attend events, and are generally comfortable in conversations about their own support are most likely to be willing to visit with others. Some volunteers bring other talents to your board and may not be familiar with fundraising but are willing to learn. Include some fundraising education and orientation in all volunteer opportunities to test the waters with your volunteers and see who might be willing to become more involved from a fundraising standpoint.

2. Set Expectations

Your board members have many responsibilities, and fundraising is a priority. Setting expectations from the outset and reinforcing those expectations throughout the year is important. Clearly communicate that a critical ingredient for powerful impact is funding brought in from the board, either through their individual gifts, or through securing funds from others. Sometimes we are inclined to apologize for fundraising, but it’s important to not present fundraising in a negative light, or downplay its importance compared to other roles of the board.

Fundraising is an “inside/outside” function. The campaign experiences of successful organizations reinforce this idea. People closest to the organization need to lead the way in financial support so it builds momentum and confidence when you begin to reach out to the broader community. No one is closer to your organization than the group charged with its governance. There are many ways to engage your board members in securing their gifts, including through annual giving, or event sponsorship. You can also implement a strategy where every board member commits to targeting a multi-year leadership gift.

For any strategy, it is paramount to outline your fundraising expectations in the beginning.  Incorporate fundraising into the formal board roles and responsibilities, and review this in your new board member orientation each year. Remember that the board chair needs to lead by example – he or she sets the expectation that fundraising is an essential component of the board role at your institution.

3. Onboard Them Properly

Orienting and training board members to engage in fundraising is essential, not only to build their confidence, but also to ensure that the right messages are being shared.

Asking for gifts can be daunting. You need to educate board members about the process and train them in best practices. One or two (or more) dedicated orientation sessions will give you the opportunity to share the language board members should use to be successful and help them understand how to handle the questions or objections they are likely to encounter. Use these training sessions as opportunities to share the most important message points of your institution or campaign, to ensure that all volunteers are on the same page. Don’t be afraid to use games and role play – acting out different gift request scenarios will help your board members prepare for all types of conversations.

Following these orientation sessions, make sure your board members are equipped with the tools they need for success. A suite of training materials might include a volunteer handbook, contact sheet, overview of best practices, and frequently asked questions.

Most importantly, remind board members that you are here for them. Feeling supported by the institution and professional staff will convince volunteers that their time is well-managed and they are not in this alone. Give them the confidence to be successful, and celebrate their successes – large and small – with them.

The Signs of a Successful Board Plan

  • You’ve identified, engaged, and recruited the best board prospects
  • You’ve set realistic expectations
  • You have their commitment and you have helped them understand the successes and challenges of your organization
  • Your board has a solid foundation and your organization will be able implement a fundraising plan that will be a driving force towards positive and powerful impact for good!

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