How Independent Schools are Responding to COVID-19

Posted April 23, 2020

We recently launched Coffee Talk, a virtual series where we gather small groups of close friends of the firm in the same sector to share advice, tell stories, and ask questions about responding to the pandemic.

This week, we sat down with a number of heads of fundraising at independent schools to hear how they’ve adapted their fundraising strategies during these unprecedented times. We share their advice below…

Across the full group…Prioritize your annual fund.

Many independent schools are faced with the question of whether to offer refunds, whether their international students will return to school next year, and given the instability of the economy, they anticipate an increased need for financial aid among returning and new students next year.  Unanimously they all agreed that operating support and budget relief for financial aid will be an even greater priority.

Independent school fundraisers often have very close relationships with their donors, more than other sectors. It can feel challenging to strike just the right tone in this moment, but they are finding ways to make appeals that feel appropriate and authentic. Our participants shared these ideas:

  • Ask if you can ask. Pick up the phone and check. Start with how they are (and try to find a question other than “how are you?”), tell them how things are at the school (including the status of the annual fund and/or campaign), and then gently ask if they would like to have a conversation about their support of the annual fund. You will likely be surprised how many will answer the question with “sure” or “not the best time.”

    Put your board or other volunteers to work! One of our clients asked theirs to just make calls to connect with 10 alumni each and see how they were doing. Just say hi and check in! It was quite successful, first because more people were available than would usually be the case and second because many were surprised to get a call without an ask. The personal touch will be remembered when you make your appeal down the line.

  • Giving Tuesday or not? There was a lively debate about the merits of Giving Tuesday Now, hosting your own Day of Giving, or giving this approach up entirely for this year. The yays had it by saying it was too important to miss, but many questioned whether having their own was better than joining the worldwide day. The big worry seemed to be how to be heard in an enormous and busy field of nonprofits, many in the throes of the frontlines of COVID-19. You will have to be clever and strategic and make yourself stand out to your donors.

    Speaking of the frontlines…

  • Host a charity challenge. Choose a period of time (perhaps a month or two), and for every donation received, donate a percentage to a local hospital or nonprofit in need. Such a creative approach may encourage a more enthusiastic response to your appeal – while, of course, giving back where it’s needed most.
  • Thank them. If you have not already, review the occupations of your alumni to identify medical workers, those in the food industry, and all other essential workers. Send out an email thanking them. They will feel the gratitude and you will elevate your brand.

Do address pending asks – and some you were planning to make.

Our participants all agreed that while waiting may feel easier, it’s important to keep the conversation going. If you don’t, there is an elephant in the room and both staff and prospect will circle it. Drawing on our own Development Guild experience of late, prospects were just fine about having the open ask raised. They also appreciate language like, “Some prospects want to continue their campaign conversations, and some are just not ready. What is best for you?” And by the way, some great gifts have closed in the last couple of weeks. In fact, one of our participants closed a gift to name their library just after our call!

The same applies for planned asks. One participant who is close to announcement of their campaign shared language that has been effective for him. It went like this: “If this was a month ago, I would have planned to talk with you about… Today, I’d like to hear whether we should still have this conversation or whether I should hold my ask for another time?” Transparency—and adaptiveness—go a long way.

As always, frequent and authentic communication is key.

More than ever, parents and students, alumni, and donors want to be kept in the loop. They are eager for information about how staff and students are adapting, how virtual learning is going, and what the coming months look like for you.

These options may serve you well:

  • Weekly emails
    One participant shared that their Head of School is sending a detailed newsletter to the entire graduate body every week. While it’s a time-consuming endeavor, the newsletters have received highly positive feedback.
  • Virtual town halls
    Consider convening virtual town halls for parents or donors, and encourage participants to submit questions via email ahead of time. We recommend using Zoom’s webinar setup.
  • Short videos featuring the school’s iconic landmarks or traditions
    One independent school has been regularly creating short videos of their Headmaster at iconic locations on campus. Not only do the videos provide an update to the community, they invoke emotion and connection – even when they can’t be there in person.
  • Surveys
    Surveys are a great way to engage members of your community and solicit feedback about how to handle events, communications, etc. during these unprecedented times. And perhaps unsurprisingly, clients have shared they’re seeing higher response rates than ever!

As you map out your communication style and plans, seek feedback from your community. How often do they want to hear from you? In what form? And what questions are on their mind? As always, meeting their needs is most important.

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.


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