Back to school looks very different this year. What does that mean for how advancement shops engage parents?

This fall will look dramatically different from any previous year.

Students of all ages will be at home or only venturing into their school buildings some of the time as part of a hybrid model.

Of the nation’s 25 largest school districts, only four plan to open the school year with any form of in-person learning (11 of the 12 largest will be online) as of Aug. 24. Many independent schools—including Episcopal School of Dallas and Friends School of Baltimoreare taking a similar approach. And a wide range of higher education institutions—ranging from Hunter College to Johns Hopkins University to Loyola Marymount University—are starting the school year virtually.

The reality is that all institutions–regardless of their well-conceived plans—are recognizing that their plans may need to quickly pivot, which can increase anxiety levels for both students and parents. In fact, we’ve already seen the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame start in-person classes then, within a couple weeks, shift online and send students home.

Adjusting to the pandemic is presenting new challenges to institutions that have long relied on parents as a source of philanthropic support. After all, parents are being asked to make difficult (if not impossible) choices between their concerns for safety, their children’s academic progress, whether they can go back to work while their children are at home, and how to supervise online education while working from home. The anxiety is high.

While advancement staffs can’t solve all of the issues facing parents, they can help to assuage parents’ concerns, provide resources and strengthen parents’ connection (or mitigate the loss of connection) with the school by finding creative ways to engage with them and offering timely, transparent communications that focus on how the school is facing the pandemic.

Building bonds

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with parents, especially given the wide-ranging approaches that schools are taking at this moment (and the vast differences between private and public institutions).

Even so, there are some clear-cut areas that advancement teams can focus on. They can assist the administration in regularly communicating timely health and safety information, including connecting parents with valuable resources to answer questions such as what the institution will do if their student becomes ill and what circumstances might lead the university to suspend classes.

Advancement can develop creative ways to bring parents together to create a community. Those efforts are important both for the short term—when it can be difficult to build connections—as well as for the long term. If schools, particularly colleges, fail to cement bonds with parents now, they may miss the opportunity given the relatively short time window that their students are enrolled.

Cementing relationships is the reason we create parent associations and host events like parent weekends. While some traditional means of bringing parents together may not be possible now, there are many ways to continue to foster those bonds. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Host a virtual town hall meeting to connect parents with the school and to answer their questions about safety precautions or other topics.
  • Help parents build a network of support to rely on in uncertainty by connecting them with other parents in their area. They can draw on those connections for any variety of purposes. For example, if they need assistance arranging transportation for their student on short notice.
  • Develop visual resources that demonstrate the safety measures the institution has taken, as well as how the institution aims to maintain the experience within that environment.
  • Create other virtual events or communications that demonstrate why the value of education remains high, even though some experiential elements may be different, and address parents’ financial questions such as why tuition hasn’t decreased in an online environment or if additional financial aid is available. It’s important that institutions are honest and straightforward, sharing the real costs and rationales behind their decisions. They may encourage parents, despite necessary adjustments, to have their students remain enrolled and make progress toward graduation, as persistent enrollment may be less expensive than delaying graduation, paying for an additional year at a higher future cost, and delaying income-earning employment.
Focus on the front-line issues

In addition to rethinking how to build bonds with parents, institutions also need to rethink their fundraising appeals so as not to appear tone deaf.

We’re in the midst of a health and economic crisis—not to mention a moment of racial awakening. Appeals need to acknowledge that this is a difficult time for all and, given the moment, focus on timely, pressing needs. Requests for student emergency assistance funds are particularly relevant now, and initiatives that increase the health and safety of students while on campus or enhance online education, for example, are timely issues as well. Messaging also can remind parents of the lasting value of their students’ education—now amid the current challenges, exacerbated by enrollment downturns and the loss of income-producing activities such as revenue sports, donor/alumni events, conferences and bookstore sales, and in the future.

Regardless of the specific fundraising focus, fundraisers should communicate regularly, frequently and honestly about what is being done to address pandemic-related issues, about the institution’s needs during pandemic, and about ongoing mission-based work that continues regardless of external conditions. Keeping in touch is important to ensure the relationship doesn’t weaken and for the institution to remain a source of information, empathy and support.

Some things haven’t changed

While school will look very different this year, institutions’ advancement staffs can help to ease parents’ anxiety and remind them that the importance of the institutions’ educational mission remains.

Building community early with parents and acknowledging the challenges of the times is imperative. By providing information, support, engagement opportunities–and continuing to ask–parents will remain an important source of support for the long run.


Would you like help thinking about how to engage parents? You can reach Laura, by clicking here.  

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About the author

Laura Simic

Vice President

Laura Simic, Vice President, brings more than 35 years of experience in fundraising and executive leadership in public and private higher education to the GG+A team.  She has frontline development officer and two decades of executive leadership experience encompassing all areas of advancement including alumni relations, advancement services, communications, annual…