Annual fundraising is the lifeblood of many independent schools. The generosity of alumni, families, faculty, and staff bridge the gap between tuition and operational expenses. Those who direct their philanthropy toward a school’s annual fund often have directly experienced its impact. So, why, with a distinct donor base and a clear need, can annual fundraising sometimes feel like an uphill struggle for independent schools?
Is it the annual campaign’s repetitive nature leading to fatigue? Or does it lack the energy and prestige of a capital or endowment campaign to excite donors?
CCS Fundraising has supported many independent school clients on a journey to reinvigorate their annual fund campaigns. Most often, a renewed focus on the core operations of a school’s development efforts will breathe new life into a flagging annual fund. By reenergizing development strategies, plans, teams, operations, and donor communities themselves, the CCS approach can help move annual fundraising beyond a series of repeated milestones and toward a cycle of success.
1. Allow Time for Robust Planning
The first step is to begin planning for the campaign well ahead of the fiscal year start. This planning process goes far beyond changing the date of existing plans. It involves a deep dive into performance data for the current year, understanding donor trends, identifying which appeals were most impactful, and comparing these metrics year-on-year. Planning for the next fiscal year should begin during the summer term and build on the data analysis you’ve been conducting throughout the year. Start by analyzing your data to answer the following questions:
- How has your major gifts program performed and what does this mean for your portfolio(s) of top prospects?
- What giving trends can you spot for each constituent group and how will this influence how you solicit them next year?
- What commonalities can you find in your pool of newly acquired donors and how will this inform your stewardship approach?
2. Refine Your Ask
Next is a full review of the case for support. Though your core fundraising needs may feel unchanged, this is a new academic year with a refreshed community. Identifying the new and emerging needs of students, faculty, and the campus they share takes a thoughtful eye and a creative touch. Draw on the strength of multiple community voices to carry forward a message that maintains the urgency of the moment and reinforces the annual effort as one that demands everyone’s engagement.
3. Thoughtfully Evaluate Your Communication Channels
Ensure that your message is received by sharing it through the most effective communication channels. The Class of 2021 may never own a checkbook or listen to their voicemail, but they may give by Venmo in response to an Instagram story. Understanding how such recent graduates choose to give in contrast to their parents and grandparents is essential to ensuring that your appeals reach and resonate with each unique donor group.
4. Balance the Traditional and Contemporary
Though each year of the annual campaign must be approached uniquely in order to maintain and build upon momentum, this should be done with a mindful eye toward history. Balancing tradition and nostalgia in equal measure with the present moment helps engage the breadth of your community.
It is therefore necessary to understand how each generation of donors relates to your school and to segment and sequence your annual messaging accordingly. This will lead you to a communication plan for the annual fund that goes far beyond a series of appeals toward a sophisticated and donor-tailored cultivation schedule of communications and events which balances the new with the old.
5. Rally Your Team
The not-so-secret ingredient of any successful annual fundraising campaign is an engaged and energized development team. United in purpose around a common set of metrics and a shared responsibility, your development office is the most influential determinant of reaching and exceeding your goals. Whether your team has worked together for years or changes per annum, ask yourself:
- Is the path to our fundraising goal realistic and is it clearly mapped out for the team?
- Does each team member understand what is expected of them and how their role contributes to overall annual fundraising success?
- Is the team sufficiently integrated into, and supported by, the wider operations of the school?
- Are we sufficiently recognizing and celebrating individual accomplishments and team successes?
Revitalizing your annual fund takes fresh thinking, thoughtful consideration, and energetic engagement. Follow these tried-and-true steps to revamp your annual fund and to inspire donors to a new level of giving.