In last month’s article, I promised to focus on increasing potential donor engagement.

Since schools end their fiscal year at the end of June, this has been about the time when schools and other non-profits that operate on a fiscal year basis ask for gifts to meet their revenue needs for the current fiscal year.

In the case of schools, many times, these requests are made since parents may not have paid all their tuition for the year, and, in some cases, it’s precisely what some schools are facing as our current state of affairs continue to change – restaurants still can’t get people to work for less than minimum wage plus tips – so they close; people who have championed their staffs through the COVID-19 pandemic, reimagined their staffing needs when whole departments found new jobs, won awards for diversity and inclusion initiatives in their departments and kept their department operating within budgetary guidelines get let go; whole departments get cut because organizations are bleeding money due to higher interest rates; and tensions continue to escalate on the world stage so that even the smallest of actions can cause a sharp decline in the performance of the markets.

Schools also need additional funds for financial aid to woo parents back to school for next year since parents may be thinking about the difficult road ahead, and may decide to not to re-enroll their for the coming school year if their financial aid package isn’t a little more generous.

And that’s the danger with being too liberal with financial aid – it will increase your current customer/parent expectations for the following year.

I know of a school system that recently received a significant amount of financial aid from a donor, and the thought was that more students would be applying to the schools.  However, in speaking with some of the parents who had children enrolled in the school, it was their perception that such an award would go a long way to keep their children enrolled in the school!

With all this happening in the marketplace today, if you’d not been serious about a full-fledged Advancement initiative at your school, make no mistake – you MUST have one.  At the very least, get one started.

However, a giving campaign at this point in the year focuses on your school, and doesn’t put the focus on the donor.  Giving Tuesday, which happens in November, focuses on the donor,  when end of the calendar year gifts are being considered, right around Thanksgiving.  While you’re planning for your coming school year, be sure to put that day on your calendar, and prepare to engage potential donors this summer and into the fall with stories about the successes your students and teachers have attained.  People relate to people, and donors want to impact people.

How do you accomplish this?  One way is to invite. People LOVE to be invited to participate. They may say “no,” but they’re appreciative of the fact that they’ve been “invited” to become involved rather than “asked” to participate.  Even though in Development, the action involving the request for funds has been called “The Ask,” this could be one reason why development activities are so difficult at times.

The essence of development is constant “invitation.”  Both you and I know what happens if people or organization keep “asking” for something, and, as the Chinese proverb states, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

Think of it this way: If you open your mail, and there’s an invitation to a birthday party, an anniversary, a wedding or other special event, you go to your calendar and see if you’re free. If you’ve ever received a phone call and the person on the line says, “Hey – we’re having a party this weekend. You free?” Your reaction depends in the manner in which you are asked.   Therefore, “invite” everyone to remain connected to your school.  In the true spirit of development, it’s up to the alum, the parents of the alum, or the member of the community to choose or refuse to be connected.

“Asking” is organizational-centric.  Think of your experience.  When someone asks you for something, sometimes, your response might be, “What do you want now?”

It fixes a mindset in the donor which focuses on “What does the person or organization want,” rather than, “They want me to be a part of this!”

The typical “ask” is akin to, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

“Invitation,” on the other hand, is donor-centric, and focuses on the want and needs of the donor.  Do they want to be a part of the organization?  Of course, WE want them to be, but in the greater scheme of things, what WE as an organization want really doesn’t matter.  Remember that snarky response you might have received when you told your parents you wanted something?  They responded by people in a particular place in the afterlife want ice water.

Once a potential donor has been “invited,” it’s then up to that individual to become even further connected. Those individuals who deepen their relationship with the organization are referred to as “engaged,” and it’s the next step to becoming a donor to the organization. Parents, alumni or parents of alumni are indeed already contributors of their time, talent and treasure, but the goal of development is to bring people from communities outside the organization to that level of participation and commitment. I’m sure we can all think of one or two people who did not participate in our school as a student or parent – yet, they volunteer, or even chair, the school’s events.

How do we increase “engagement?” Usually, we like to say “Get involved.” That’s a good first step…but it won’t bring development dollars nor actions.

A little over 14 years ago, my wife and I started a non-profit to subsidize the cost of private music lessons to students in our local school district’s marching band program. It’s a band that competes on the national level, and private music lessons not only help a student’s musical abilities, but recent brain research shows that participation in a music program also has a positive effect on learning. We put an advisory board together with 4 other couples who had children in the band, but were now “parents of alumni.” We all did what we could since we were all working full-time at the time.

Today, the four of those couples are now retired from work, but they consider their work to now be volunteering for the organization!  They’re going to community events and representing our organization locally. They talk to whomever they can about it, inviting businesses and their connections to experience the positive effect the program has had on the children of our community. Their commitment has grown from “involved” to “engaged.” Involvement deepens and becomes more and more intense because they see the organization continue to grow.  And, just as more involvement becomes “engaged,” more engagement brings “commitment” from other folks who want to be part of the positive impact the program has on students, and it’s grown to include the concert band as well as the orchestra programs.

“Engagement” is more than a “need,” it’s a “want.”  Think of it as similar to the relationship between a couple. First, there is “interest,” then “participation,” followed by “involvement,” then “engagement,” and finally “commitment.”

Here’s something you can do to start reaching out into the community: start a monthly eNewsletter to be distributed to those individuals that have made contact with your school.  Not parents – they have their own type of correspondence.

This communication must focus on the positive achievements of students to encourage those constituents to become more involved with the school, and then be encouraged to support the successes with their time, talent and treasure. Using an eNewsletter service can feature just a few “Good News” stories about these folks as an introduction, with a link back to your school’s Web site so interested individuals can read “more” about the story.  Yes, that means your Web site must be modern, responsive (that is, designed with a mobile-first architecture), and constantly updated!

Remember, if your Web site looks “old,” in the minds of today’s parents of young children, that means your school is “old.”  If it looks like it was designed in the late 1990’s, they may consider your school to be irrelevant to their needs and expectations.

Today, you must regard your Web site as the repository for EVERY news item and detail about your school.  That way, when someone says, “Send me more information about your school,” point them to your Web site.

Then again, if you’re embarrassed by your school’s Web presence, you now know what you MUST do first. Make it your top priority on your list of things that must be addressed as this school year comes to an end.

The eNewsletter links are designed to be able to be tracked so you can discover what topics visitors are interested in.  It’s a way to further engage them. Perhaps they’re interested in your art/music/drama events; or in the success of your sports teams; or in the successes your students have in History Day or forensics competitions.

Then, when special projects that may need funding occur, you have a group of people who you know are interested in that area of your school, and can approach them for “lead gifts” since you know they have a particular interest in those achievements.

It’s also an example of “viral marketing.” Once someone receives it, they should be able to forward it to their friends, members of their class, or other community members whom they think may be interested in your school’s achievements. The recipient is automatically added to your database once they open it and chooses to subscribe. This database should also be coordinated with your annual appeal database, which is step one of your development actions.

And that’s just the start of the work, since as technology accelerates, those monthly eNewsletters will need to become weekly publications.  In fact, the trend is now moving toward reaching out daily to engaging people through social media – but those daily communications must have some really valuable content that appeals to some segment of your market.

Otherwise, it just becomes part of the “noise” that social media creates.

It’s “buzz” that cuts through the noise generated by so many institutions clamoring for attention.

Some folks have said that silence also helps to distinguish one’s self.  Unfortunately, the silence strategy only captures attention when everyone is silent.  If you’re producing stories to read rather than videos to watch, remember the “white space” technique to cause some distruption and capture attention.  If you’d like more information about it, send an email to [email protected] with the words White Space Technique in the subject line.  I have a GREAT story about the power of silence that pertains to my grandson.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is!

And, if you’re involved with an elementary school that doesn’t have a full-time Advancement or Development director, I would lay odds your school is struggling today.

The issue is that if your school continues to exist without one, as well as have paper-based processes when it come to enrollment and application, and does in house invoicing for tuition billing and check collection, your school is NOT advancing, and may not continue to exist.  You might have a staff that’s comfortable doing these things the way they’ve always done them, and really doesn’t want to get into all this technology “stuff,” but your parent community expects up-to-date technology!

These are the activities that are not just necessary but essential to build not just your school’s, but any non-profit organization’s, infrastructure, and develop long-term relationships.

If you just keep asking people to buy some cookie dough or wrapping paper over and over again, keep in mind that in difficult times, fundraising products are the first thing to be cut from a family’s shopping list.

Next month, we start to explore the divisions of development.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2024