Independent schools often rely heavily on one, large annual event to meet important fundraising goals, but may want to consider diversifying their event strategies so that they are tailored to engage donors wherever they are in their philanthropic journeys.

Independent schools often rely heavily on one, large annual event to meet important fundraising goals. While these large-scale events can play an important role in community building, they are often costly and time-consuming. Moreover, by focusing on one event, schools are missing out on opportunities to interact with donors and prospective donors in meaningful ways. School development offices should consider diversifying their event strategies, particularly during campaigns, so that they are tailored to engage donors wherever they are in their philanthropic journeys. By developing events with specific and actionable goals, schools will drive campaign activity at each level of the moves management process and bolster the overall philanthropic health of the school.

Horace Mann School, a Nursery-12, co-ed day school of 1,800 students in Bronx, NY and CCS Fundraising partner since 2015, has had a great deal of success in leveraging different types of events to elevate the performance of both annual and capital fundraising. The School launched an ambitious $100 million campaign to support campus renovations and expansion, with a commitment to maintaining the success of the annual fund over the campaign’s five-year span.  Horace Mann’s creative and targeted approach to events drove campaign giving, while minimizing impact on the annual fund. The following case study of Horace Mann’s work with CCS provides several useful examples of how to utilize four key elements of strategic event planning: education, cultivation, motivation and appreciation.

1) Educate

At the beginning of each school year, Horace Mann holds a new parent Trustee Reception for each of the School’s four divisions. These receptions, hosted by members of the Board of Trustees, serve as an important opportunity for new parents to not only meet one another, but also to learn about the opportunities for philanthropic involvement at the School. Independent schools often act as a young parent’s introduction to the world of philanthropy; it is at their children’s school that parents learn how their charitable dollars can make an impact on a given organization. Particularly for mid-level donors, an independent school is, in many cases, a family’s first major gift recipient. At Horace Mann, these Trustee Receptions are an important crash course in giving.

Setting the Tone

While there should be some discussion of fundraising at these receptions, philanthropy should certainly not be the primary focus. New parent events should be casual and informative, rather than heavy-handed, so that all families, whether they are $25 or $25,000 donors, feel welcome. These events should embody the “un-ask” ask: making a case for philanthropic giving without making a firm solicitation.

While your development team can be helpful with mailing invitations, managing RSVPs, and staffing the gathering, the events themselves should be parent-focused and parent-driven. A parent making an appeal to a fellow parent can be far more meaningful than one from a member of your development staff.

Follow Up

After these events have taken place, it is important to note that the invitations to these receptions and event follow-ups should appear to come not from the Advancement Office or the Head of School, but from the trustee hosts.

For smaller schools with fewer divisions or fewer admission entry points, Kindergarten Breakfasts can be equally effective. Held on campus at several times throughout the beginning of the school year, these small group breakfasts offer Kindergarten parents an opportunity to meet with Trustees and the Head of School in a casual setting. These gatherings, like the trustee receptions, can lay the groundwork for future fundraising conversations, while providing new parents the opportunity to discuss the transition to a new school.

2) Cultivate

Horace Mann also saw a great deal of success with two types of cultivation events during its capital campaign. The first, small group dinners, were particularly effective during the campaign’s quiet phase. These dinners took two different forms. In the campaign’s first two years, CCS and the Development Office worked closely with the Head of School to develop a curated guest list of high-capacity and high-affinity parents. The Head of School extended an invitation via email asking families to join him for a dinner at his home with a few other parents. Similarly to the Trustee Reception, fundraising—in this case the campaign—was not the singular focus of the evening.

Both the Head of School and the Board Chair conducted follow up to these events, ensuring an extremely personal solicitation process. These dinners were crucial in garnering early support for the campaign and for identifying potential campaign leaders.

Maximizing Small Gatherings

As the campaign progressed from the principal and leadership gifts phase to the major gifts phase, these small group dinners were utilized to cultivate top prospects on a grade by grade basis. Members of the Campaign Cabinet invited families they believed could make meaningful gifts and conducted their own outreach prior to the event, supported by CCS and the Development Office. These dinners were held at the Head of School’s home, private homes, or restaurants across New York City. The volunteer leaders said a few words about their involvement in the campaign, followed by an appeal from the Head of School and dinner. The Head of School then sent a brief thank you email to each attendee within the week, but the real work of soliciting fell on the campaign volunteers who hosted the event.

By holding smaller events and conducting individualized follow up, Horace Mann was able to ensure that families were having meaningful conversations with campaign leaders about making stretch gifts and multi-year pledges, rather than one-time, outright gifts.  These conversations also reinforced the prioritization of the annual fund, allowing the School to receive sizable campaign gifts while growing the annual fund each year.

Sustaining Campaign Momentum

Horace Mann’s second style of cultivation event utilized the facilities made possible by the campaign. In the early stage of the campaign’s community phase, the Development Office held a series of Open Houses in the School’s newly added Campus Center. The parties featured a short cocktail reception, followed by a campaign video, an appeal from the Head of School, and brief, small group tours throughout the newly constructed and renovated spaces. The Development Office distributed all invitations and managed the RSVP list, but members of the Campaign Cabinet were responsible for sending personalized emails to each invitee to encourage attendance. These Cabinet members served as the event’s Host Committee, welcoming guests as they arrived, joining tours to provide a parent perspective, and sending thank you emails after the event.

The Open Houses simultaneously promoted campaign participation, but also reinforced the importance of the annual fund. Only donors who had already committed to the annual fund at a certain level were invited to these Open Houses. By segmenting the invitation lists, Horace Mann was able to engage prospective mid-level campaign donors, who were committed givers to the annual fund, in large groups. Like the small group dinners held during the quiet phase, the school maximized prospective donors’ contact with the Development Office and Campaign Volunteers to promote multi-year pledges.

3) Motivate

Two of Horace Mann’s most successful events celebrated the campaign’s success and the achievement of important milestones. These large-scale, donor-only receptions were held not only to steward important campaign donors, but also to motivate prospective donors to make meaningful commitments prior to the events. By using invitations to these “exclusive” events as incentives to give, Horace Mann saw significant increases in the number of gifts as well as dollars raised in the months leading up to these two parties. Campaign leaders set internal fundraising goals prior to both events, raising the sights of the campaign volunteers and creating a sense of urgency. On both occasions, the campaign exceeded the internal goals by over $1 million.

Heightening the Importance of Events

The first of these events was a Beam Signing Celebration during the campaign’s quiet phase. Guests heard from the Head of School, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and the campaign’s lead donors, after which all campaign donors were invited to leave their mark on one of the beams that would eventually support the new facilities. Though invitations were distributed only to campaign donors, additional excitement about the event was drummed up at the School’s cultivation dinners and in the campaign leadership’s conversations with prospective donors. This push to drive activity prior to the event was so successful that the campaign received 38 gifts totaling $2.5 million in less than a month, a significant increase over the 11 gifts totaling $845,000 received during the previous month.

The second event, a Hard Hat Tour, was equally successful, raising $3.5 million from 28 donors in the four weeks before the event. The Hard Hat Tour, like the Beam Signing Celebration, had an element of exclusivity that encouraged participation at increased levels. While there was no minimum gift amount required to be invited to these events, both CCS and the Development Office at Horace Mann were pleasantly surprised by how eager families were to make personally significant gifts to the Campaign. Moreover, given the parties’ construction-related themes, both events demonstrated the impact of donors’ philanthropic dollars in a tangible way.

4) Appreciate

Finally, each fundraising event at Horace Mann, whether for the capital campaign or annual fund, demonstrated the School’s appreciation for its donors, volunteers, and trustees. The small group dinners held during the quiet and major gifts phases, as well as the Open House events, empowered trustees, campaign volunteers, and donors to further engage in the campaign process by giving them leadership roles. The School’s large-scale celebrations gave leadership donors a moment to shine, while also acknowledging the generosity of each person in the room, regardless of the size of their gifts. Furthermore, each donor was always sent home with several pieces of campaign-themed gear as an additional thank you and a reminder of their participation in the campaign.

Sustaining a Successful Future

These opportunities for stewardship ensure a donor’s continued engagement with the School for years to come and, in fact, can serve as important cultivation opportunities for future fundraising efforts or for existing initiatives. Horace Mann held a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony in October of 2018 to officially commemorate the opening of the School’s new facilities. Donors watched a short video of the impact the building was already having on students, faculty, and staff, and then were allowed to walk through the spaces independently. Ten donors who attended the event were so moved by the program and by the facilities that they increased their campaign pledges, with one family doubling their commitment. No gesture of stewardship is too small.

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.