How do you move a donor from a transactional annual fund supporter to a transformational investor in your school’s vision?

So you’ve identified a family who has the potential to make a transformational gift. They’ve made a moderate gift to your annual fund and are showing interest in deepening their engagement. But how do you move them from a transactional annual fund supporter to a transformational investor in your school’s vision? In this article, we explore the specific steps you can take to prepare your prospective major donors for a big ask.

The Growing Power of Independent School Philanthropy

In the spring of 2019, Blackbaud Institute reported that among its sample of over 9,000 nonprofits, K-12 schools saw the highest average gift size of all giving to any sector. In fact, over the past five years, average annualized growth of giving to the education subsector has outpaced the average growth rate for total giving.

The types of gifts across all sectors also looks to be changing. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project reported that 2018 gains in giving across all sectors were driven exclusively by gifts over $1,000 and that new donors making gifts over $1,000 increased by more than 37 percent.

It is undeniable that major gifts are a vital source of support that can transform the ways in which schools are able to advance their mission and impact students.

Unique Opportunities and Challenges

No other type of nonprofit has the frequency of interaction and proximity to their donors as day schools, where parents are often, if not daily, picking up and dropping off their children, attending meetings, and volunteering in various capacities. This provides independent schools myriad opportunities to build deeper relationships with their prospective donors and demonstrate the impact of their mission. The nature of independent school missions also fosters deeply held sentiments of gratitude from parents and alumni – which in turn provide a deep pipeline of potential ambassadors to draw from.

Alternatively, we also recognize the challenges that come with raising funds with this audience. Parents of primary, middle, and upper school students may be younger in age and less experienced in flexing their philanthropic muscles. This fledgling stage of philanthropy may often mean prospective donors require more education to understand why they are being asked to give to various funding priorities at their school (i.e. annual fund, benefit, or capital campaign), all the while they may also be experiencing solicitations from many different nonprofits simultaneously.

Steps to Get You There

Independent schools have a tremendous opportunity to leverage a highly engaged prospective donor pool to secure significant philanthropic support. Therefore, what steps can independent schools take to foster a relationship that will allow for a transformational gift request to take place? We focus on the act of making a request because there is never a guarantee that a prospective donor will give a transformational gift. But if we take the necessary steps to cultivate and steward a donor properly before a request is made, the likelihood of securing a meaningful investment will be much higher.

1) A Vision that Matters

Before donor outreach begins, it is imperative to outline the collective vision that will advance a school’s mission. A strategic plan is an excellent place to begin this discussion. What were the major takeaways from those discussions with stakeholders and what are the priorities that need to be funded in order to move the school forward? These goals should be at the heart of your discussion with donors. By focusing on the high-level vision, you can reflect on past generations of parents who have created the school you are today and the need for current parents to carry on that legacy of excellence. Always remember that aspirational goals are required to secure aspirational gifts.

2) The Art of Cultivation

Cultivation is not the ask. This work is about building trust with your donors. Create intentional events and interactions that help school leadership, faculty, and advocates share the school’s impact and vision for the future, and provide space for a dialogue that will deepen prospective donor engagement and create buy-in. Some tactics to keep in mind as you develop cultivation events:

3) Executing Donor Moves Management

It is vitally important to track the interactions that help deepen your relationships with donors and to create space where a request can be made. Listed below is a typical donor cycle:

What often happens is a donor continues to be cultivated and briefed, but there isn’t a distinct step that allows your school to make an ask. Setting clear expectations for meetings, asking donors specific questions regarding how they would like to proceed, and allowing them to share their level of comfort with giving is extremely helpful. Some sample language to move a donor from cultivation and brief stage into an ask include:

4) Making the Ask

Take the guessing game out of this process by being very clear about the intentions of the meeting and make sure to ask your prospective donor for a specific gift. At this point, you have done the groundwork and your donor knows they will be asked for a gift. Even if you overshoot the gift amount, they know it is well-intentioned and it is rare that donors will be offended by an aspirational ask. And just as important as the ask is your follow-up. The right ask amount will likely necessitate that your donor take some time to deliberate about their gift level. It is extremely important that you continue following up with the donor so that when they have made their decision, you are prepared to accept and show gratitude. A great question to ask when following up with donors is, “What do you need to make your decision on my request for your leadership gift?”

5) Meaningful Stewardship

Well executed stewardship fosters loyal and sustaining support. Our three rules to stewardship include:

Where to Start

A good way to approach this process is to focus on the things you can control:

At the heart of fundraising is the ability to keep these structures in mind as you create personalized approaches for each of your donors. Knowing your vision and remaining committed to seeing your goals to their completion is vitally important to fundraising success, but so is your ability to be flexible and resilient as you navigate the infinite complexities of donor needs. Always remember the most compelling cases for support clearly demonstrate how your aspirational funding priorities will advance your mission and deepen impact.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.