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Parent Fundraising: Relationship Building & Engagement

This article was first published July 8, 2014

Our interview with Sandra Butters (Northeastern University) and Kim Gerighty (Groton School) reveals the strategically complex nature of educating parents on the importance of supporting the institution their child has chosen to attend.

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: Thank you very much, Sandy and Kim, for joining us today about parent fundraising: trends and challenges in our world of advancement. Let me first start with Sandy who, as a director of the Parent Giving Program at Northeastern University, what do you find to be your biggest challenges?

Sandra Butters: Yes. Good question, Cynthia. I think the one continuous challenge for me has been in educating the parents—especially parents of first-generation students. Their philanthropic partnership with the university is something that has to be explained. It has to be learned. Parents who pay full tuition, feel that their tuition is their gift. Their idea of philanthropic partnership with their child’s university is often seen as that transaction. So they have a difficult time understanding how the tuition they pay doesn’t cover the full cost involved in educating their child.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, it’s a problem with parents, whether they’re first-generation student or full pay student, for example. They may come at it from a different perspective, but the result nonetheless is an educational process.

Sandra Butters: Absolutely.

Kim Gerighty: Yes. I would totally agree with that, Sandy. It was one of the things that I was thinking of as well. I would add that one of the challenges is timing. Unlike alumni, we only have parents here at Groton School for between four and five years. So, we really need to move accordingly to engage our parents on a timely basis. Managing parent expectations of their child’s experience is I think, especially at the secondary school level, sometimes a challenge, particularly during the college application and acceptance stage. Sometimes the parents’ expectations are not always in line with what their child’s expectations are, and those of the school as well.

Sandra Butters: Well, that’s interesting, Kim. When I look back on my experience in secondary school fundraising with parents, I remember the college application process.

Sandra Butters: Their gift is often commensurate with that level of satisfaction.

Kim Gerighty: Yes.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, in both cases, whether at an independent school or at a university the educational process is important at the beginning, as the child then progresses the challenge becomes managing them as they become engaged. They then may change their expectations of what the school or the university might expect.

Sandra Butters: I would agree with that.

Cynthia Woolbright: When you think about this past decade, what have you witnessed in terms of parent fundraising itself?

Kim Gerighty: I think at the secondary school level, the biggest trend is the emergence of fundraisers specifically for parents, and in some cases even a team of parent fundraisers. It’s a vast opportunity that has been somewhat overlooked historically, since schools have put the majority of their emphasis and focus on alumni support, especially those schools with larger endowments. Some of our peer schools are just now beginning to explore and implement a position in the development office that really focuses on parent support. So, in some cases, I feel as though, parent programs and parent giving is fairly new.

Sandra Butters: That’s a very good point. I was looking at it from the perspective of, when a parent does become engaged they make a transformational gift. They want now, more than say ten years ago, to be more informed as to how their gift is being used. While they trust that the institution is being true to their promise on spending, they will frequently ask for updates. Compared to the concept of the unrestricted giving, that was much more widely accepted, ten years ago, But those who are making the larger gifts really remain closer to the process, I think, now more than before.

Kim Gerighty: And that really increases the whole stewardship piece of it as well.

Cynthia Woolbright: In both of your cases, is the stewardship maintained predominantly in your area, or is it passed over to the stewardship director?

Sandra Butters: In our case, it would be both, Cynthia. We have a fantastic stewardship team, and they manage all of the president's thank you notes, and the events that they have, recognizing the giving from parents who are giving at a certain level. But as gift officers, we are really maintaining strong connections to these parents, who have made, as I said before, the transformational-type gift.

We stay very close with them and also with their children. I’ll go to lunch with them. I’ll follow up on how their academic programs are going. And this really enhances the relationship that you have with the parent, and really makes it a lot stronger.

Kim Gerighty: I would totally agree with Sandy. I mean, we’re a very small office here, and we do have a half a person dedicated to stewardship. She does other things for us in the office. But I think the majority of the stewardship really comes from my position and the other major gift officers

Cynthia Woolbright: So, for someone that’s developing a parent fundraising program, what kind of advice would each of you give them?

Sandra Butters: It’s a little overwhelming when you look at starting a whole program. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is, you have to really have a clear vision of the long-range plan; and then be able to kind of map out a three- to five-year plan, so that you cannot become overwhelmed with all that you need to accomplish. Because there’s so many places you can go. And once word gets out in your institution and among your parent community, everyone has ideas that they want you to implement. So, trying to really stay focused on building the program that you need to establish in the beginning, is critical. That would be one thing, for sure, that I would recommend.

Cynthia Woolbright: How do you go about that, if you’re going to start that program, how do you manage those expectations? Those, within the institution, wanting to get involved and make suggestions that may or may not be appropriate?

Sandra Butters: I can use Northeastern as an example. We started out with a major gift program with parents, and it started out on a very small level. And then, each year that went by, we added an additional component. We expanded by adding regional programs. That was very important to everyone. I wasn’t here when it first started, but as I look back on it, there was a consensus that we need to get parents who are out in the San Francisco area together. Let’s see if we can get another parent to host an event for us. And these are things that we’ve been doing for a long time, but we can see how strategically important they are to the whole overall program.

Then there’s also the annual giving program, and that’s a whole other entity. That has to be managed as well. You have to choose, which area do you want to go in? Where are your human and financial resources available?

Cynthia Woolbright: And what would you give, Kim, for your advice?

Kim Gerighty: My biggest thing would be volunteers. They are really the core of a good development program—well-managed volunteers, of course. And I think having the right staff in place, that are flexible in dealing with the many issues that parents feel are important—that relationship, I think, fostered well, can give the best experience possible for the parents, and then of course that always is helpful in yielding and obtaining the best support.

I also think developing an excellent path of communication with the parent volunteers is essential. Their expectations may be very different from what you’re able to provide, in particularly a small office atmosphere. And just being very honest and upfront can eliminate some possible miscommunications down the road with your parent fund volunteers. I think also giving them a very clear guideline of what is expected of them, and what kind of support that you’re able to provide to them, and what is most important to the school.

Sandra Butters: I completely agree with you, Kim. It’s the strong core of parent volunteers that work closely with you, can say things and can glean things from other parents that we can’t do.

Sandra Butters: They have an experience shared with one another, where they can relate to each other, and they can make more progress in moving the relationship along, and almost tee it up for us to then step in. And we know then what their concerns are. So, the strong core of parent volunteers is critical.

Sandra Butters: One other thing that I would add, that I’ve found has been really helpful to me – and I have a very small team, but we have people that are very adept at working with large data groups. Someone on your team that can get access, and knows how to manipulate data and provide reports, can help drive your strategies. You can see where things are strong, where you want to focus most of your attention. If you’re just starting out, you want to make sure that everything you do has an impact on moving your whole process and your program along. You don’t want to spend a lot of time with things that you’re not really sure if this is going to work. So, follow what the data is telling us.

Cynthia Woolbright: Is there a position where you both think a program like this should fit? Is it the annual fund; major gift? What have you learned ?

Kim Gerighty: I think it really depends on the school, the size of the office, and how the current staff is configured. I think there are pros and cons to it being managed in different areas. At Groton, I handle the parent fundraising, which includes annual leadership, annual gifts, while major gift officers have capital and some annual prospects in their pool.

And in addition to that, I’m the liaison to the program – the programmatic area for the parents, which is mainly the parents’ association, which is led by an appointed trustee. So, this has certainly been a positive for me, since I have a good handle on the pulse of the parents and their concerns, and I feel in this position I’m also the one that has the ability to address these concerns and potentially make change, which is really helpful.

Kim Gerighty: A happy parent community is always a good thing when you’re trying to maximize giving.

Kim Gerighty: However, it comes with some cons too. Programs is a slippery slope, and you really need to be firm about drawing the line. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself doing all programmatic-type materials that I think could keep anyone busy.

Kim Gerighty: Other schools have parent giving directors, which makes the line, I think, a little bit clearer. However, some cons of that could be, they may feel in some way sort of alienated from what’s going on in the parent community.

Kim Gerighty: I really think that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and I think it should be a well-thought-out decision that best fits the community and the school’s or organization’s overall strategic goals.

Sandra Butters: Well said, Kim. I completely agree with you. We have a Parent Giving Program. And it’s a small team, and we’re responsible for a lot of different things. But I like the way this works. We have seven colleges that each have their own development officers, and yet all of the parent activity funnels through me—through our program.

So, we can work collaboratively across the board with providing information; providing data if necessary; providing materials. You know, we’ll put different program materials together that we make available to everyone else. We’re probably closer to a lot of the parents than they are. So, we have our finger more on the pulse, if you will. So, I like that model. Yet, I’ve worked in other institutions where it’s been a little bit more decentralized than that. So, I think you’re right; one size does not fit all. You have to really look at what your institution’s needs are.

Cynthia Woolbright: I think the important thing that you both have said is based on what the institution’s priorities are, and the ability to collaborate, regardless of where you sit—that parents cut across all aspects of the institution.

If you were to share with our colleagues the lessons that you’ve learned—because I know both of you have been involved in parent fundraising for some time now—what would be those lessons? What would be your best advice?

Sandra Butters: My absolute best piece of advice, especially if you’re working in major gifts, is to never underestimate what a parent might be willing to invest in your institution. I have been pleasantly surprised when I’ve just gone out on a limb and put a big ask out there, parents have become engaged and interested in it. It has to be the right ask. It has to be the right time. But you always should shoot high and be surprised. That would be one very important piece of advice.

When you hit on that one thing that you think they may be interested in investing in, it becomes a shared interest between the parent and their child. And it’s also something the parent can see as a legacy that their child can continue supporting once they become an alumnus.

Kim Gerighty: Yes. I think that’s great, Sandy. I was also going to say, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Because you never know what they’re willing to do, and what they might be interested in.

I would also add to reach out to the new parents as early as you can. I think that’s a great time, and they are most eager to meet with you and find out more about the school. I’ll just reiterate about educating the parents as much as possible, and to foster the relationships between your volunteers. Again, I just can’t state how much the volunteers are helpful, we just couldn’t do what we’re able to do without the dedicated parent volunteers that we have.

Sandra Butters: Kim, that’s a great point. Yes. I think that reaching out to the new parents is a great idea. We’re finding that those are the ones who are the most interested; the most engaged. If you can form a relationship that very first year, chances are, that will continue through their child’s educational experience.

Cynthia Woolbright: How do you both get to those parents when their child first enters?

Kim Gerighty: Well, I have my list now and I’m starting already. We know who our new parents are. And, you know, once school ends here, the second week in June, I’m going to start meeting with our new parents. Start early.

Cynthia Woolbright: Is that individually? In small groups? Do you have events for them, or is this on your own one-to-one process?

Kim Gerighty: I’m going to try to reach out to as many as I can on a one-to-one basis. If we have some local parents, I can do some day visits. At the end of the summer we’ll ask some of our current families to host receptions for us, and we usually have two to four across the country. So, that’s a great way to gather all of your new parents at once. But I think, also, it’s an honor for them that someone from the school is really reaching out to meet with them and to give them more information about the school. So, they’re always eager to meet.

Sandra Butters: I agree, Kim. We have our list that we’re pulling together also. And we’re planning, At this point, about 14 sendoff parties. They’re the same kind of receptions that you were mentioning, and we do them all across the country. It’s great if you can get the current parents and their students. And the questions are all for the current students, from the incoming students, right? So, those are wonderful opportunities. It’s very low-key. It’s just a welcome and an introduction. Sometimes they may look at you a little funny if they know that you’re from the advancement office. But we tell them that it’s not all about fundraising. You know, we are advancing the mission of the institution. And that means we want to get you involved as much as you’d like to become involved.

Cynthia Woolbright: Do you see a dropoff as their child begins to, you know, get to their junior or senior year? Do you have some that really stay with you? What’s your experience in that regard?

Sandra Butters: My experience has been that they continue on, and some stay on even after their child has graduated. How about you, Kim?

Kim Gerighty: I would say the exact same. Here at Groton, one of the things that I’d like to do over the next couple of years is to implement a new parents of alumni volunteer committee. Because we do have those parents who have graduated, and they want to continue doing their volunteer work. My experience has been that, for the most part, the volunteers enjoy what they’re doing, and they do stay on.

Cynthia Woolbright: Well, thank you both for the time that you’ve taken. And enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Sandra Butters, Director, Parent Giving Program, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

Sandy began her career in development in 1998 when she was recruited to serve as the Director of the Annual Fund at her alma mater, Gordon College, located in Wenham, MA. She was responsible for writing appeals, direct solicitation of alumni and parents, coordinating an annual giving leadership society, managing student volunteers and the call center. After six years at Gordon, she transitioned into the position of Director of Parent Giving at Phillips Academy in Andover, a private secondary school. Sandy spent, in her words, “seven glorious years” at Andover, building upon a strong parent giving program, managing a team of four and a volunteer group of 75 parents. In July of 2010 Gordon College invited Sandy to spend a year as the Vice President for Development for the year in between a retiring longtime president and the search for new leadership. In this role Sandy oversaw development and alumni affairs, and served on the Senior Leadership Team. At the end of her term at Gordon, she joined the Advancement team at Northeastern University as a senior major gifts officer working with the non-alumni parent community, and, in May of 2012, became Director of the Parent Giving Program.

Kim Gerighty, Director of Parent Programs, Groton School, Groton, MA

Kimberly A. Gerighty began her career in development at Middlesex School supporting their annual giving program and assisting in prospect research. She moved on to fundraising with parents at St. Sebastian’s School and helped launch their young alumni program. After three years, she made the move to Phillips Academy and spent the next seven years in the annual giving department, most recently as Director of Alumni Giving. At Andover, she was responsible for a cohort of alumni in the 1960s and 1970s and the 50th reunion which raised over $2M in gifts annually. Managing the Annual Giving Board, led by an appointed trustee, collaborating on new initiatives and partnering with the Alumni Engagement office on reunion planning were among other responsibilities at Andover. In July of 2013, Kim became Director of Parent Programs at Groton School. At Groton Kim is working to uphold the incredible 91% participation rate of parents through the volunteer Parent Fund program and carries a prospect pool of leadership parents. In addition, she is liaison to the Parents’ Association and manages the School’s monthly e-newsletter the Peabody Press. She’s a longtime member of Women in Development and serves as a volunteer for the CASE Breakfast Programs. She and her husband and four year old son enjoy living in Groton.

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