This article originally appeared in Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools’s fall issue of its quarterly publication, HaYidion.
Before launching a private consulting practice, I served for five years as director of development at a sizable Orthodox school in a major metropolis. On my first visit as a consultant to a small school, I found myself mentally noting all of the “mistakes” my client, the head of school, was making. Board members were involved in grant writing and reporting. The school could not afford a development director, so her lay leadership coordinated the fundraising program. She was allowing her development committee to spend too much time on events. There were standing admissions and marketing committees! I was overwhelmed with the level of dysfunction.
She had hoped that I would understand that her school and, more broadly, her community, was different from others with whom I had worked. Instead I judged her actions and misunderstood the school’s culture. It took me some time to arrive at the conclusion that a narrowly defined approach to day school development work would not serve me (or the school) well. While there are a set of principles and practices that apply to all day school fundraising programs, there are also areas ripe for differentiation based on school size, staffing and affiliation.
Let’s start by examining universal standards for good campaign planning. No matter your school’s size, shape or affiliation, you must have or do the following:
An annual campaign plan. This is a document that outlines the dollars you must raise in a given year, the means by which you will raise them, and the strategies and tactics you will use to achieve your goals. Typically, it breaks down by fundraising constituency and the goals for each target market area, such as major donors, parents, alumni parents, alumni, grandparents, board, community, faculty/staff, etc.
A board that understands its role as capacity builders for the school. Many schools feel their board, or even specific board members, should be able to opt out of this responsibility. I believe there is no exception to this rule: Every board member, at every day school, must be involved with capacity building. That said, the roles board members can play in fundraising extend far beyond just asking for the gift. We need prospect identifiers, cultivators and stewardship ambassadors. Start by asking board members to make thank-you calls to top donors.
Job descriptions. Every volunteer must have a clear sense of his or her role. Board members appreciate written expectations so that there is no misunderstanding about what the job entails. These descriptions typically include expectations with regard to fundraising, meeting attendance and committee assignments.
A moves-management or cultivation/stewardship plan for major gift prospects and donors. This document should outline your plan to regularly interface with your top 20-25 donors and prospects—those who are either already giving at the top of your gift pyramid or have the potential to do so. These are donors and prospects that need hand-holding in order to maximize their giving or realize a first gift.
A development/fundraising committee. A productive development committee can emerge as more than a box on an organizational chart. Fundraising committees tend to organize around target market constituencies: parents, alumni, grandparents, major gifts, etc. Your committee should co-author the campaign plan, serve as prospect identifiers, create and chair events, ask others to lead, evaluate efforts, cultivate relationships and solicit gifts.
A development professional. It is highly unusual for schools to reach their optimal fundraising potential without a part- or full-time development professional leading the effort. Even schools fortunate enough to have exceptionally strong lay leadership will not achieve maximum potential without a professional whose role it is to plan, guide, lead and remain accountable for the fundraising program.
While it is important to establish these universal rules for campaign planning, it is also necessary to differentiate in several areas, including school size, type/affiliation and staffing structure.
Despite my assertion that a school needs a full- or part-time development professional, small schools often feel they can’t afford one. What does this mean for your fundraising strategy?
Development planning. It’s OK for smaller schools to create development plans that are simple and straightforward. You may not address as many target markets as your larger school counterparts (i.e., it may be impossible to tackle the cultivation of alumni, alumni parents and grandparents within the same fiscal year). It might also be a good idea to eliminate events that do not target major gift development as their core purpose. If your development team is lean, your plan must optimize each member’s role and enable the proper cultivation of new donors and the solicitation and stewardship of current stakeholders.
If your campaign year includes multiple events (“a-thons,” golf outings, concerts, auctions, dinners) and thus a focus on transactional giving rather than relationship development, you may be sacrificing quality for quantity and using your team’s time inefficiently. I recommend you create a plan that trades in the auction for 10-15 one-on-one meetings with donors and prospects. I predict you will raise more money.
The head of school as development director. It’s important that a school head partner with the board in stewarding, and often soliciting, key school stakeholders. But keep in mind that at schools with full- or even part-time development directors, heads often play a different role than schools without them. Heads at small schools tend to engage more frequently with fundraising committees, play a more prominent role in the planning and execution of the annual gala, engage in a greater number of one-on-one solicitations, and have a much stronger sense of the campaign’s pace. In other words, sometimes the head of school must function in a development director capacity because there is simply no one else to play the role. The ideal scenario is that someone on the school’s administrative team serves as the campaign’s “project manager,” ensuring that timelines are created and followed and leadership are trained and resourced. This allows the head of school and key board leaders to properly cultivate, solicit and steward major donors and prospects.
The moves-management list. The “rule” above stated that you should shoot for a moves-management list that includes your top 20–25 donors and prospects. This rule should be amended for smaller schools or school heads without a development director. The size of your list matters less than the quality. If you can identify even 8–10 donors and prospects that need your attention this year, you are in good shape. Develop a plan that keeps these folks top of mind and schedule your moves with intentionality, thoughtfulness and practicality. Put the moves directly into your Gmail or Outlook calendar. This list should include the individuals, families and foundations without whom your school might not exist, so don’t accidentally miss an opportunity to show them what you do and who you are. The moves-management plan insures against these missed opportunities and offers a roadmap to successful donor engagement.
While school size tends to be a strong predictor of campaign size, school type and affiliation also strongly influence both the case for support and campaign operations. A case must reflect a school’s economic reality and appeal to the interests of its donor base. A unified approach to campaign messaging will not do. Schools must tap into compelling gift impact messaging when crafting their case, and what is moving for stakeholders at some schools is simply not compelling at another.
Orthodox schools. Orthodox day schools tend to provide a greater percentage of their families with tuition assistance than non-Orthodox schools. Orthodox schools also tend to receive a lower percentage of their budgets from parent tuition and fees. It is not uncommon for 75% of an Orthodox Jewish day school’s student body to request and receive financial aid. This aid is typically funded by the school’s annual campaign effort, and therefore messaging around this case for support might be vastly different from that of a school whose support serves 20-40% of its families. Orthodox schools tend to message their campaigns around a commitment to serving every student, regardless of financial ability. The terms “annual campaign” and “scholarship fund” are often used interchangeably because almost every contributed dollar is used to offset the cost of educating those who cannot afford to pay. The bottom line is that schools must determine what type of messaging will resonate most strongly with their donors and then connect the donor’s interests and passions to the work of the school.
Community schools. For non-Orthodox families, high tuition tends to be the leading factor in the decision to send children to public schools. Reform, Community and Conservative schools tend to operate in or recruit from communities with strong public schools, which present tempting (and free) high-quality options for the non-Orthodox. Therefore, the case for support in these schools is more likely to include messaging around issues of continuity (some note that non-day school alumni are less likely to marry Jews, attend synagogue regularly or observe Shabbat). Campaign messaging for a community school might focus on academic excellence, technology, professional development, Israel programming and college placement, in addition to financial aid. Tuition assistance rates alone may not present a compelling case for support in community schools, and therefore it is important to understand and tap into the stakeholder’s motivation to give.
The synagogue-school partnership. Schools that function within a synagogue environment operate from a place of collective interest and investment. Some synagogue-based day schools share development teams and other resources, thus offering an opportunity to message to donors around community building, family education and holistic learning. Often these partnerships wisely choose to solicit only one annual (capital or endowment) gift per member or family each year, and thus these partnerships should spend time understanding the donor’s motivation for giving and consider how the gift is achieved. They must think carefully about the right solicitor team, the proper ask amount and appropriate gift timing. Synagogue-schools should also spend time crafting a detailed gift acceptance policy so that leadership are well-versed in responding to questions about directed or restricted giving. By highlighting the collective passion and talents of lay leadership and staff, and the sense of community synagogue-schools are uniquely able to build, the case for support developed by this partnership can be very powerful. A documented campaign strategy with a well-defined case is a crucial tool for schools of this nature.
Campaign development is not a-one-size-fits-all endeavor. Although there are a set of universal principles and practices that apply to all day school fundraising programs, size, staffing and affiliation may influence the way we develop campaign plans, partner with lay leadership and message our case for support. And while it’s good practice to adhere to some universals, it’s also healthy to make room for variation, customization and debate, making our fundraising programs more sustainable and successful.