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Fundraising in the Independent School Environment: Making a Difference

This article was first published December 12, 2012.

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: Alright, well, thank you very much for agreeing to talk with us. From your perspective as the head of school there at Buffalo Seminary, describe for us the impact of the last five years on fundraising and how that has played out and what you might expect going forward.

Jody Douglass: Well, I arrived at Buffalo Seminary five years ago, at a time where I don’t think I was aware just how challenging the next five years would be. We were very fortunate that we had a lead gift to begin a renovation of our athletic facilities and to create a Buffalo Seminary Squash and Athletics Center.  It was the immediacy and the need that I think motivated people in that area. That collaborative effort that focused not just on ourselves but on the community really seemed to resonate with foundations especially, but I think also with individual donors who were willing to contribute to something that had a purpose beyond a small group and really made sense to the larger community.

Cynthia Woolbright: What do you expect as you go forward, now, in the next several years

Jody Douglass: I do think it’s going to be challenging. I think there are difficulties, but I think, again, that that collaborative effor  really makes a difference. people are looking for things that will make a difference right now, but they’re also looking for ways that the school is going to contribute to the community and ways that they can feel good about their contributions because they know it’ll make a big difference; not just at the school but also beyond. I do think that may be a trend emerging that—a philanthropic trend—that some donors are looking, not all, but some donors are looking not just to give to their alma mater or the school they care about or their daughter’s school, but to a project at that school that has a bigger purpose.

Cynthia Woolbright: And during this time of economic turndown how was the response from the board? Did they step up their giving?

Jody Douglass: I would say that board leadership in these difficult times is critically important. I really do think that I was fortunate at Buffalo Seminary to have great board leadership. People who really understood that you can’t stand still and you have to move ahead and that if they are willing to give, then others will give as well. we had some leadership gifts from the board in several areas. And then all of the board got behind the projects that we were engaged in and they contributed, again, not all at a top level, but all of them contributed and everyone really bought-in to the project itself and to making things happen.

So even in other areas of the school we were working on a laptop/tablet computer program. And we had a lead gift from the board that really set that program in motion. I’ve often thought that if we hadn’t done it in that first year that I was here, the challenges economically might have made it daunting even just one year later. because we had a leadership gift from a board member we were able to plow through that and keep going. it has really made a big difference at the school. So board leadership, not just in the giving itself but in getting behind the projects and making sure that there’s 100% participation from the board, I think really does make a difference in setting the tone for any kind of philanthropic project that you’re doing as a school.

Cynthia Woolbright: Do you think that in this current climate does the board still worry some or do they feel like there’s been a shift, you know, in the economy in terms of recovery or in this case, as you’ve described, that the projects that you’re selecting are ones that not only benefit the school, but the greater region?

Jody Douglass: I do think the board sees the challenges and they know and understand the economic climate; especially in this region. I think that Buffalo, as a very poor city, faces some challenges that are distinctive Rust Belt city challenges. And even though the economic climate seems to be recovering, it never sunk quite as low here because we were, you know, in tough times even before that. So it probably isn’t rebounding at that same rate that I think people are seeing in other areas of the country. the board is concerned, but I think they also recognize and support initiatives to move the school ahead and they get behind that and then they really help connect us with resources individually and through foundations that can make a difference.

Cynthia Woolbright: That’s terrific. How would you describe how you’re keeping your top prospects and donors engaged? What are you doing in that area and what are you learning? How are your donors responding?

Jody Douglass: The things that we at Sem do best are the events and the personal contact. I really always think it’s the personal contact that makes all the difference with donors. But we do a very good job of setting that stage through the events that we do that bring people into the building, connect them with students, help them to see what’s going on, and we do that work with our donors and our prospects quite well.

The other thing that’s probably changed in recent years is a greater influence of social networks. We do much more on Facebook and Twitter. We’re very lucky to have a PR person who embraces that, because I think it’s almost a 24/ 7 kind of thing that if you don’t have someone engaged in it regularly people lose interest in your Facebook page or your Twitter site. But if you have someone who likes updating that information with pictures and with little news articles, then that’s a great way to reach especially some of the younger prospects. they see it and they feel connected immediately because it goes up instantly after there’s a special event or a great school play or a music group. You can actually have people connect to that and see it and feel it. And that has helped, too. But it’s the personal contact…

Cynthia Woolbright: What do you see as the three major challenges that we face right now in raising philanthropic support and how might you be addressing those?

Jody Douglass: I think there are numerous challenges. I think that it’s tough right now when people are a little fearful of what might happen next with the economy so they tend to want assurances that the school will safeguard their money if it’s to go into endowments. So I think that’s a particular challenge. I think one of the challenges is sometimes women, especially, realize that they’re going to – chances are good they will live longer than some men, so they have a harder time parting with money because they’re anxious. And in this economic climate that is a real challenge. I think that while things that were glamorous, bricks and mortar new buildings might have been easy to raise money for in the past, I think there’s a little bit of a sense of what do we really need and does the school really need this. I think donors are much more, perhaps more savvy and they want to see the immediacy of their dollars. They want it to make a real difference. So those are some of the challenges I think schools face; especially when they’re looking at trying to raise endowment funds.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay, does that vary from other educational, higher education for example or other not for profit organizations? Do you think these challenges are across the board in raising philanthropic support or what you’ve suggested might be more unique to independent school?

Jody Douglass: I would say some of these seem to resonate across the board. Another area is a need for scholarships and financial support for students. And I think that can be a tough challenge; especially for independent schools. And I think it’s getting harder to raise scholarship dollars as the need has grown.

That’s more an intuition than any real knowledge. But, you know, I just know that other independent schools have recently had some struggles trying to raise scholarship dollars where in other places that hasn’t been an issue. So I’m not sure it’s across the board, but I do know that it is happening at a number of schools.

Cynthia Woolbright: I would think that scholarship would be one of the more easy ones to raise money for.

Jody Douglass: Well, you would think so. And I think for many people it is. I mean there are some donors who are just stepping up all on their own and saying, you know, we want to do this; it’s very important. And then others who say, do you really need it? Maybe the school shouldn’t be spending as much on scholarship and investing in other areas. I’ve seen it work both ways.

Cynthia Woolbright: Finally, what I wanted to also ask you is in terms of some trends of the future. What do you see as what they might be down the road?

Jody Douglass: So sometimes I think we’re at a new crossroads and it’s hard to predict what the trends will be. But I think that people are more savvy. They are wanting to see what exactly the difference their money will make to the organization they’re giving to in a way that, perhaps, they were a little less concerned with that in the past. So I think that’s one trend. And then a real effort to see that the dollars are going to make a difference be in the biggest possible way. I talked about collaboration here, but I think there’s a sense that there are real needs out there because of the economic climate. And I think many philanthropists are giving less to just a general good cause, but giving money that they would like to see make a real difference. And I think it’s where collaboration and an evaluation of how the programs can serve beyond just your organization make the difference in fundraising.

Cynthia Woolbright: Is there anything else in terms of raising philanthropic support; challenges, lessons learned? Anything that you might want to add?

Jody Douglass: Lessons learned: I think the great thing about raising money is when you have donors who care so much, you connect them to a great project and everyone feels so good at the end of the project and the school thrives because of that connection. So it’s those personal connections that continue to make all the difference. we always knew that, but it continues to maybe both surprise and please me how much difference it makes when the donor, the school and whatever the possibilities are connected in such a way that success happens.

Cynthia Woolbright: We’ve always said that philanthropy is about an art and a science. And I think while there is lots of science to it and the data are important, it is that passion, that relationship that inspires. So it’s nice to know that that still is critically important to someone being able to give joyfully.

Jody Douglass: Great. Right.

Cynthia Woolbright: Yes, alright, well thank you very much, Jody. I appreciate it.

Jody Douglass: And thank you, Cynthia.

About Jody Douglass

In the fall of 2012, Jody Douglass began her sixth year as Head of School at Buffalo Seminary. She has served in a number of positions of leadership in education. Prior to moving to Buffalo in 2007, she served as Head of School at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, where she helped begin an international boarding program. She has served as Assistant Head of School and Dean of Faculty at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts; Associate Dean of Admission at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont; and Assistant Director of Admission at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She has also served Director of College Counseling at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In 2001, Ms. Douglass and her husband spend a year in Beijing, China, teaching for School Year Abroad.

Ms. Douglass sits on the Board of Trustees for the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) and has served as chair of a NYSAIS Accreditation Committee. She served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Independent Schools in New England.

Ms. Douglass holds a B.A. in sociology from Bates College and her M.A. in English from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.

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