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Perspectives on Trends and Challenges in Raising Philanthropic Support at Independent Schools

We invited Geoff Liggett, Director of Institutional Advancement, The Wheeler School and Susan L. Richardson, the Director of Constituent Relations at The Fenn School, to share their observations on the trends and challenges that many, if not all, of our independent schools may be facing.

From your perspective, please describe the three most critical challenges for independent schools related to the engagement of alumni/parents to raising philanthropic support.

GL: For parents, it is maintaining the connections after their son has graduated our school. We have a very supportive group of Parents of Alumni; however philanthropic support sometimes graduates with the student!

Because we are a middle school (grades 4-9), the challenge is keeping alumni connected to our school and having them understand that the impact of their gift can be greater at our school than possibly at their secondary school and/or college. Also, because they still lived at home when they attended our school it is challenging to keep up with the multiple address changes through the years; so maintaining current contact information for our alumni is an additional challenge.

We can fall at the bottom of their philanthropic priorities. Our alumni tell us that our school is where they learned the skills and took the chances that enabled to succeed in their secondary school and/or college, but oftentimes they support those institutions more generously than our school.

SR: I’ve worked at a boarding and now a day school – I’ll give you my perspective as one who is working in a day school environment but tempered by my other experience. In both cases parents give a disproportionate share of the total dollars raised both for capital and annual. Day schools are much more heavily dependent on parent support. And maybe because of this there has not been as much investment in developing a robust alumni program.

With a particular focus on alumni and annual giving, our challenges include reducing the attrition rate among alumni donors to the annual fund. Sometimes this can amount to 30%. Getting SYBUNTS to be annual donors is a challenge. We are working on the development of a class-agent system.

We are trying to move from an almost entirely staff-driven operation to a hybrid staff/volunteer driven one (which was the opposite of what I encountered and tried to change at the boarding school).

From our parents, we have a good dilemma in that our senior parent gift program is very successful. The problem is that we are too reliant on it – this past year it made up almost 30% of our entire annual fund. We will make a much bigger push to spread out our philanthropic dollars from our parents with particular focus on incoming parents in the 6th and 9th grades – entry points for many of our students/parents.

Please describe the strategies that you are finding successful as you engage alumni and parents in your advancement program. Are you witnessing an increase, or decrease in alumni engagement overall? What about these groups percent participation in your annual fund?

GL: I guess this depends on how you define “engagement.” From a philanthropic standpoint, 45% of our alumni have given at least one gift over the past ten years. We ramped up our student calling program this past year, which helped us increase our participation rate from 13% to 18%. Eighteen percent seems to be the average for our peer institutions (day schools). Our focus is on the past decade; alumni from the 40’s through the 70’s who have never given probably won’t now – if they will, it will be a long process of bringing them back into the fold. My goal is that through the development of a stronger reunion program we can recruit and develop a stronger class agent system and thus increase participation in all forms with the school. Our parent program is robust. We have almost an 80% participation rate in the annual fund and our goal next year is 90%. Recruitment of more parents to help with the fund is our priority this year.

SR: We increased alumni participation significantly in FY2011 by using a reunion gift challenge. Several reunion volunteers challenged their classmates by offering to increase their own gifts for every gift from their classmates (i.e. four members of the 25th Reunion class each gave an additional $25 for every gift made by their class mates). We were able to use this challenge across other reunion classes.

We have seen an increase in alumni engagement in the areas where we have made personal contact through personal visits by our Headmaster and/or staff members.

Since we have a small staff we sometime choose to focus our efforts on particular constituencies. When we focus on a particular group (i.e. alumni, parents of alumni) we usually see our best growth in that constituency.

We are continuing to work on providing events and other opportunities that draw different alumni back (i.e. Young Alumni, Professionals in a particular city, etc.).

Our Board of Visitors is an adjunct board comprised of a cross-section of our constituents. Their ambassadorial role has kept them connected to our School, that in turn has made them generous supporters of our annual fund and campaign efforts, in addition to spreading the word about our admissions efforts.

In terms of alumni and parent engagement in independent schools, what are the major trends you identify over the next three to five years related to raising philanthropic support?

GL: I believe, as do most of my colleagues in the field, that stewardship of the donors is the key to keeping them in the fold. Most day schools are heavily reliant on parent support – here it is 80% both for annual and capital gifts. A major trend / point of concern for us is the local economy – Rhode Island faces many challenges and it is affecting our parents’ ability to give at significant levels. We have been successful at raising capital gifts for scholarship endowment and thus the percentage of students on financial aid has gone from 15% to 20% in the past two years. The upside is we are getting outstanding students; the downside is our parent pool is less wealthy.

I don’t know if it is a trend but it is imperative for us to engage and increase the level of support from our alumni. It has been a self-fulfilling prophecy that the support will come from the parents so that has been where our efforts have been focused. Lastly we will be making a greater effort to develop our bequest program. We were a girls’ school until the 1970’s. Looking at trends at women’s colleges, where some are seeing as much as 40% of their alumnae commitments in the form of bequests, we think there are opportunities here for us as well. The health of our school will rely on our ability to increase the endowment – which is the focus of our emerging campaign.

SR: I see the trend as going to more designated gifts for causes that they specifically want their dollars to support (i.e. scholarship, sustainability, etc.).

Another trend we are seeing is that the traditional methods of contact (phone, direct mail) are not as effective as they once were.

For your school, what strategies might you employ to address these trends? What trends are you witnessing in your annual fund/major gift program?

GL: I would suggest the same as my earlier answer.

SR: We are introducing an alumni e-newsletter.

We see social media as an important strategy to addressing these trends. Our web site is also more important both for information and for making online gifts. This fall we will be using PURL (personalized URL) in an effort to better reach our alumni to collect updated contact information. We will also include a survey designed to learn more about what the alumni want in terms of communications, programming, preferred means of contact and events. I can design programs and events, but knowing what the expectations are of the alumni and finding out what is important to them will impact the effectiveness of our programs.

What might be some “lessons learned” in your advancement work with alumni and parent leaders?

GL: Keep things simple – no more than three things you want them to do/accomplish each year. You only have good alumni volunteers for a short period of time. It is almost impossible to find a class secretary who is willing (and effective) to hold this position for life. Instead we work hard on recruiting a select number of volunteers to help with their reunion planning and hope they stay on for another year or two – for a three year commitment.

SR: I think the most valuable lesson is how important relationships are when it comes to philanthropic support. We do a good job of keeping our current parents and students engaged, and the more we have reached out to keep our alumni and parents of alumni engaged and connected, the more positive impact it has had on our giving.

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