Independent schools need to shift from pivoting to proactive planning

Alongside “COVID-19” and “pandemic,” it is reasonable to assume that “disruption” and “pivot” will be in the running for Merriam-Webster’s word of the year. But now that we have lived in our new abnormal for the better half of the year, we should be less surprised by current events and consequently should gravitate from a pivot mindset to a proactive mindset. Further still, the tools and approach that we employ should be familiar. If ever there were a time to adhere to time-tested best practices, now is that time.

Like many industries, advancement is undergoing a coronavirus reformation. At this same moment, Black Lives Matter is fueling a social revolution that has prompted significant self-examination and action at independent schools. While development has weathered many financial storms throughout the past few decades, 2020 could still prove quite unfamiliar and independent school development shops need to prepare accordingly. It is more important than ever that we develop and adhere to a working plan lest we lose sight of our most important goals or get drawn into matters outside of our purview.

Prioritization is the central theme of my plan for the new school year at Lancaster Country Day School, where I’m the chief development officer. Consider the following:

  • None of our offices is efficient as they once were.
  • Schools are all developing budgets that are harder to balance considering less net tuition revenue and unexpected COVID-19-related expenses.
  • With an unstable national economy, raising money will be harder and certain donors might not be capable of supporting us at their previous giving levels.

These compounding realities call for an assessment of how we each spend our time in pursuit of goals and how we manage our teams. We need to give ourselves permission to focus on our most important objectives and to accept that other initiatives will remain lesser priorities. Attaining buy-in for revised plans will clear an easier path. Our heads and boards should be aware of the challenges we confront and should be made aware (or even help with the creation) of our shifting approaches to meet those goals deemed most critical. Below are some of my 2020 guiding principles:

  • Focus on key relationships: Protect loyal leadership-level donors. After all, it is easier to retain than recruit new donors. That’s why I’ve made outreach a priority and given these families the time they deserve. Even if the moment isn’t right to make a request, it’s important to stay in touch with those who have been loyal donors. As you reach out, you should be sure to be genuine and purposeful in your engagement. Beyond those existing donors, it’s also important to continue to qualify new or more distant families as you are able and close your open requests. Following up pre-COVID-19 era conversations will reassure prospects that they have not been forgotten and that your funding objective remains important. As you focus on key relationships, do not forget your devoted volunteers.
  • Major gift work comes first: Disciplined, deliberate major gift work (qualify, cultivate, ask, steward, repeat)–whether for annual or capital efforts–should be front and center. I recognize that participation matters, but in a compromised environment your time and attention should be directed to the bottom line rather than the brag sheet.
  • Practice ruthless honesty: Has your gala been limping along for a while or will it play a beneficial role in your program this year? The current environment offers a valid reason to give the gala a break or—if it is a vital community builder—to hold it earlier in the school year to help build momentum. You should also ask yourself questions such as, “Does that Valentine’s Day mailing really pay for itself?” If not, it may be reason to cut Cupid loose this year.
  • Meet your donors where they are: We often speak of a donor-centered approach…and then present the less-than-compelling opportunity for donors to plug a budgetary puncture wound. Instead of making requests for your annual fund, you’ll likely find more success providing a menu of options. Many schools have COVID-19-related relief efforts or have intensified their DEI-related fundraising. That’s why it is a good idea to talk to your donors and present them with these options. Now is a good time to let donors give in a way that excites them. It’s important to be honest because donors should understand if their gifts replace or augment the existing budget.
  • Manage thoughtfully: This is not the year to mimeograph and rerun the prior year’s game plan. Nor should every player on a development staff have the exact same role. COVID-19 justifies changes to job descriptions. If there are serious concerns about the school’s budget, those who have traditionally held back-office responsibility might need to be given roles that more directly support front-line fundraisers. For example, someone who has previously been responsible for special events might prove an asset in prospect research or the alumni director who previously coordinated volunteers and helped cultivate prospects might need to take on portfolio responsibility. However, before you make changes, you should consider your team members’ strengths. It’s also important to treat your team well at this moment (and always). The pandemic is straining all of us and members of your team might be dealing with challenges such as experiencing isolation, or having difficulty balancing work-life demands.
  • Don’t waste the opportunity of a good crisis: The pandemic has brought forward gut-wrenching and anxiety-fueling moment for our planet. At the same time, coronavirus has given us permission to reform certain approaches and an excuse to go about things a little differently. For example, now that teleconferences are now known and normal, you can now request a Zoom call with an alumna who lives in a remote fishing village in Alaska who you wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to engage with. You might also find increased traction for a small campaign aimed at funding a state-of-the-art STEM lab or endowment drive to make your school more accessible. More eyes are on science than ever and there’s a new tremendous wave of excitement behind inclusivity efforts. At the same time, because many campaigns have been called off, there is possibly less competition in your specific philanthropic market. Perform a feasibility study and see what your community can afford. You might be surprised.

Development functions matter more than ever. If our schools are to emerge from the pandemic as strong as they were before, they will need financial underwriting. If we are to play a meaningful role in social reform, development will not only play a fiduciary part but might also need to accept its role as the glue that holds community together to ensure productive conversation and to curb divisiveness. Finally, should schools have ambitions for vital ongoing operational support or future capital and endowment campaigns, advancement needs to remain passionate in articulating our case and we must maintain visibility (even if our script has changed)–to apologize or to take a year off is to undermine our critical role in advancing institutional vision.


If you need assistance making the shift from pivoting to proactive planning, please contact Shelby at slamar@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Shelby LaMar

Vice President

Shelby LaMar, Consulting Vice President, serves clients within our independent school practice area. He has more than 20 years of experience within this sector, including managing capital campaigns, annual funds, and advancement services, as well as communications and marketing development, including proposal writing, and case statement development. Since 2009, Shelby…