So you’ve identified a family who has the potential to make a transformational gift. They’ve made a moderate gift to your annual fund and are showing interest in deepening their engagement. But how do you move them from a transactional annual fund supporter to a transformational investor in your school’s vision? In this article, we explore the specific steps you can take to prepare your prospective major donors for a big ask.

The Growing Power of Independent School Philanthropy

In the spring of 2019, Blackbaud Institute reported that among its sample of over 9,000 nonprofits, K-12 schools saw the highest average gift size of all giving to any sector. In fact, over the past five years, average annualized growth of giving to the education subsector has outpaced the average growth rate for total giving.

The types of gifts across all sectors also looks to be changing. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project reported that 2018 gains in giving across all sectors were driven exclusively by gifts over $1,000 and that new donors making gifts over $1,000 increased by more than 37 percent.

It is undeniable that major gifts are a vital source of support that can transform the ways in which schools are able to advance their mission and impact students.

Unique Opportunities and Challenges

No other type of nonprofit has the frequency of interaction and proximity to their donors as day schools, where parents are often, if not daily, picking up and dropping off their children, attending meetings, and volunteering in various capacities. This provides independent schools myriad opportunities to build deeper relationships with their prospective donors and demonstrate the impact of their mission. The nature of independent school missions also fosters deeply held sentiments of gratitude from parents and alumni – which in turn provide a deep pipeline of potential ambassadors to draw from.

Alternatively, we also recognize the challenges that come with raising funds with this audience. Parents of primary, middle, and upper school students may be younger in age and less experienced in flexing their philanthropic muscles. This fledgling stage of philanthropy may often mean prospective donors require more education to understand why they are being asked to give to various funding priorities at their school (i.e. annual fund, benefit, or capital campaign), all the while they may also be experiencing solicitations from many different nonprofits simultaneously.

Steps to Get You There

Independent schools have a tremendous opportunity to leverage a highly engaged prospective donor pool to secure significant philanthropic support. Therefore, what steps can independent schools take to foster a relationship that will allow for a transformational gift request to take place? We focus on the act of making a request because there is never a guarantee that a prospective donor will give a transformational gift. But if we take the necessary steps to cultivate and steward a donor properly before a request is made, the likelihood of securing a meaningful investment will be much higher.

1) A Vision that Matters

Before donor outreach begins, it is imperative to outline the collective vision that will advance a school’s mission. A strategic plan is an excellent place to begin this discussion. What were the major takeaways from those discussions with stakeholders and what are the priorities that need to be funded in order to move the school forward? These goals should be at the heart of your discussion with donors. By focusing on the high-level vision, you can reflect on past generations of parents who have created the school you are today and the need for current parents to carry on that legacy of excellence. Always remember that aspirational goals are required to secure aspirational gifts.

2) The Art of Cultivation

Cultivation is not the ask. This work is about building trust with your donors. Create intentional events and interactions that help school leadership, faculty, and advocates share the school’s impact and vision for the future, and provide space for a dialogue that will deepen prospective donor engagement and create buy-in. Some tactics to keep in mind as you develop cultivation events:

  • Enlist your top donors and strongest proponents to serve as ambassadors. Their testimonies build a culture of pride for philanthropy and peer-to-peer education is often the most effective form of advocacy.
  • Create opportunities that educate donors about your objectives. Have a capital project? Bring in an architect or expert to talk about the impact of educational spaces on student performance. If a campaign priority has to do with programs or curriculum, i.e. STEM or performing arts, enlist an expert in the field to help showcase the professional landscape that students need to be prepared for.
  • Be very clear about event objectives. If it is an event to thank donors for their support – keep the program clear of requests. If it a fundraising event or meeting – make sure this is clearly stated in the invitation.

3) Executing Donor Moves Management

It is vitally important to track the interactions that help deepen your relationships with donors and to create space where a request can be made. Listed below is a typical donor cycle:

  • Cultivation – building a relationship with Head, Board Chair, Director of Advancement, Peers, etc.
  • Brief – meeting to specifically talk about the campaign or fundraising initiative(s).
  • Pre-Request – narrowing down donors’ interest and setting the stage for the request, i.e. asking permission to present a proposal for support.
  • Request – presenting a formal proposal for support and making the ask.
  • Steward – timely, accurate, and consistent appreciation for generosity and reporting of impact.

What often happens is a donor continues to be cultivated and briefed, but there isn’t a distinct step that allows your school to make an ask. Setting clear expectations for meetings, asking donors specific questions regarding how they would like to proceed, and allowing them to share their level of comfort with giving is extremely helpful. Some sample language to move a donor from cultivation and brief stage into an ask include:

  • Invitation to a Brief: “The school we are today is in thanks to the families who came before us who invested in our continued excellence. My hope is that you can be one of those leaders in our community. Can we meet to talk about how you can be an integral part of advancing our important work?”
  • Articulating a Clear Plan: “Can we meet to talk about my vision for the school’s future and how you can be a leader in supporting our campaign?”
  • Setting the Stage for an Ask Meeting: “Can we sit down in a month so that I can present a formal proposal of support that aligns with your passions for the school and what we talked about today?”

4) Making the Ask

Take the guessing game out of this process by being very clear about the intentions of the meeting and make sure to ask your prospective donor for a specific gift. At this point, you have done the groundwork and your donor knows they will be asked for a gift. Even if you overshoot the gift amount, they know it is well-intentioned and it is rare that donors will be offended by an aspirational ask. And just as important as the ask is your follow-up. The right ask amount will likely necessitate that your donor take some time to deliberate about their gift level. It is extremely important that you continue following up with the donor so that when they have made their decision, you are prepared to accept and show gratitude. A great question to ask when following up with donors is, “What do you need to make your decision on my request for your leadership gift?”

5) Meaningful Stewardship

Well executed stewardship fosters loyal and sustaining support. Our three rules to stewardship include:

  • Accurate: Make sure your school’s processes are in place. This includes accurate data entry and maintenance. Nothing will hurt stewardship more than mistakes in donor names, student names, etc. Accurate giving history is also crucial to building effective fundraising strategies.
  • Timely and Consistent: Donors should receive a thank you in a consistent and timely manner. Determine what stewardship touch points each giving level should receive and stick to the plan. The same applies to stewardship events. Establish annual stewardship gatherings that celebrate cohorts of donors. This will help create a feeling of excitement around giving at certain levels and can help inspire donors to elevate their giving to join a higher tier.
  • Authentic: Create opportunities to steward donors that are commensurate with the level of generosity and make them as personal as possible. Don’t underestimate the power of a phone call, voice message, and/or handwritten note.

Where to Start

A good way to approach this process is to focus on the things you can control:

  • Audit your stewardship process: A well-oiled thank you process is imperative to sustaining fundraising success. Sit down with your team to make sure everyone understands the stewardship process.
  • Review the accuracy of your donor information: Is your team inputting information correctly and consistently? Everything from donor information to gift details needs to be entered properly to ensure credible reporting, data review, and development of future strategy.
  • Identify your top 10 prospects: Determine which of your donors meet the golden trifecta: strong past giving, current affinity to your organization, and accessibility to a member of your fundraising leadership team. Those who meet these three criteria are your most promising donors.
  • Make an individual plan for each of your top 10: Each donor has unique characteristics and needs. Create a plan for each donor which reflects their place in your donor pipeline and map out how you will get them to a gift request. Honoring where donors are in your pipeline will allow you to have an authentic and honest conversation about how they want to be cultivated and how realistic their potential support will be.

At the heart of fundraising is the ability to keep these structures in mind as you create personalized approaches for each of your donors. Knowing your vision and remaining committed to seeing your goals to their completion is vitally important to fundraising success, but so is your ability to be flexible and resilient as you navigate the infinite complexities of donor needs. Always remember the most compelling cases for support clearly demonstrate how your aspirational funding priorities will advance your mission and deepen impact.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.

About the Author

An Nguyen is a Vice President at CCS Fundraising and has dedicated over 14 years to advancing the philanthropic work of nonprofits throughout the Western United States. For the past 4 years, she has worked closely with Independent Schools in California’s Bay Area; including Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park, Mid-Peninsula School in Menlo Park, and Saint Andrew’s School in Saratoga. Her experience spans a large breadth of services, including feasibility and planning assessments, major gifts strategy, case development, campaign management, and volunteer mobilization. An has guided the successful acquisition of transformative gifts during her partnerships, many being the largest contributions families have committed to the nonprofit she has worked with. An lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and two rescue dogs. In her spare time, she trains to compete in triathlons once again.