Advancement adages to succeed by

Over the course of 25 years in fundraising, I’ve collected a cache of one-liner wisdom. Taken collectively, these adages convey some of the elemental yet important concepts in our work. Here are my top 10:

10: You have to spend money to make money

There is a reason that the most successful school fundraising programs are often the best resourced. Yet I often encounter school leaders—CFOs, trustees, and Heads in particular—that are starving the advancement function while simultaneously expecting greater results. Given the pressure on school budgets, this is an understandable position…until you remember that advancement is a revenue center. Depriving this important function of experienced and adequate staffing, budget, or other resources simply doesn’t make sense. If your program costs $300,000, and the team raises $1.5 million annually, you’re realizing a net revenue of $1.2 million and have a respectable cost-per-dollar raised of 20 cents. But imagine increasing the investment to $500,000 by adding more staff and/or more budget and raising $2.5 million instead. Maintaining the same cost-per-dollar raised, your realized revenue will have jumped from $1.2 million to $2 million. Is that worth the extra $200,000? I think so. More money spent often means more money raised.

9: People give to people

Direct mail will always have a place in school fundraising, but it is a passive means of fertilizing the field and rarely yields the bulk of the harvest. Loyal and large giving stems from the relationships forged between donors and their peers and/or a school’s leaders. When solicited by someone with a similar connection to the school who has made his or her own gift, most prospective donors feel called to mirror that peer’s commitment. When approached by a school leader whom the prospective donor respects and holds in high regard, the leader asks the donor not only to give but also to trust that the gift will be used effectively and judiciously. Relationship-based fundraising speaks to a donor’s heart, rather than just the head. And it is from the heart that the most extraordinary gifts are typically made.

8: Embrace transparency; eschew transaction

Prospective donors want to know what the purpose of your requested meeting is, why your school needs a gift, and how the school will use a contribution they might make. But few trustees, Heads, and other volunteers can imagine themselves saying something as disarmingly transparent as, “I’d like to meet with you so that we can talk about your giving to the school. We depend in part on contributions to compensate our teachers fairly, and we’re currently seeking philanthropic partners to increase our endowment for faculty support. Your investment in this area could help us raise salaries to ensure we can continue to attract and retain top talent on our faculty. Would getting together on Monday work for you?” Rather, too many volunteers—and even staff—contact prospective donors and extend ambiguous invitations to undefined lunches or, worse, talk about the school’s goals and deadlines and the duty of donors to help: “You’ve given in the past, and our goal is large, so I hope you’ll help us meet it by making a major gift of $X before the campaign closes.” Our prospective donors are ready to hear our earnest reasons for wanting to talk with them; let’s avoid being vague or transactional because we’re too feeble to be forthright.

7: Schools don’t raise money; donors make gifts

As a former English teacher, I recognize that language is more important to me than most (oh, the lessons I learned from Mr. McCollum in 12th grade about avoiding passive voice!). But language is also important to your donors. Imagine being a donor who gave your school $10,000 last year, only to see in the annual report that “The school raised $X million; hurrah!” Hello? The school received $X million in contributions from donors who made gifts. In this subtle but critical shift of language, we put donors where they deserve to be: in the starring role of philanthropic hero. As fundraisers, it is our job to be humble and celebrate our donors’ commitment to the school, not our fundraising program’s accomplishments.

6: How many $10,000 gifts does it take to raise $10 million? Too %$#@ many.

Big goals are achieved with big gifts, and successful fundraising requires outliers. The belief that if all parents would just give $10,000 or all alumni would just give $1,000, we could achieve our goal, is flawed and—worse—counterproductive. The reason successful fundraising relies on gift pyramids is because the top 10 percent of a school’s donors typically give more than 90 percent of all contributions —annual and capital. Although I think this principle is well understood in campaigns, I often see too much focus in annual giving programs on direct mail and phonathons seeking gifts of $100 or $250. The truth is that the goal-achieving gifts in any annual or capital campaign are the few that are extraordinarily large compared to most others. For this reason, our path to any goal must place the highest emphasis on the 10 percent of donors who will help us achieve it.

5: If it isn’t in the database, it didn’t happen

In advancement, it is vital to know—and retain—how current and prospective donors have responded to our past outreach. In schools, we tend to [over?] value the “institutional memory” that a long-serving member of the staff brings to the table. The alumni director who is an alumna herself and has strong relationships with hundreds of alumni is, yes, an asset. However, a greater asset is having her document her work with those alumni in the advancement database. I once stepped into a role in which I inherited several top prospects from a previously longstanding member of the fundraising staff. When I opened those prospects’ records in the database, I found very little that helped me understand the trajectory of their relationships with the school or the most recent conversations with them about giving. Although the previous employee was only a phone call away and amenable to recounting history, I lost both ground and precious time in advancing the school’s relationships with those donors. Documenting our work is important not only for continuity’s sake but also for the sake of holding advancement staff accountable. The fundraiser who says that everything is in her head, so she doesn’t need to record it, diminishes our efficacy.

4: Participation doesn’t pay bills

Any CFO will tell you that participation rates don’t pay bills. So school leaders’ obsession with participation rates is confounding. What’s actually important is the dollars you’re raising now and where future dollars will come from. Assuming you are well on your way to securing the top gifts necessary to meet current financial goals, focus next on broadening the base through donor upgrades, retentions, and acquisitions. But calculating the number of donors who gave divided by the number of constituents solicited is a useless pursuit. (And if advancement staff want school leaders to stop asking about these metrics, stop reporting them already!). If you think participation rates are a measure of how your constituents feel about the school, your reasoning is flawed. Many alumni, parents, and others who love the school will never give. Let it go. Focus on the donors who are giving and ask them to renew and increase their support. Remember that your CFO needs philanthropic revenue to pay teachers, offset the school’s financial aid budget, increase the endowment, and renovate and construct facilities. Even the best participation rates don’t help with any of that.

3: Fundraising is not democratic

I don’t want to sound Orwellian, but some donors are more equal than others. To be successful in fundraising, we must make peace with this premise and understand that—all other things being equal—it is the leadership donor’s call that should be returned most quickly, the leadership gift that should be pursued most fervently, and the leadership giving program that should be resourced most amply. Prioritizing our advancement strategy is essential to generating successful outcomes, and the priorities reside in the largest sources of philanthropic revenue. Fundraising is not democratic, so that we can have school communities that are.

2: If you want advice, ask for a gift; if you want a gift, ask for advice

Donors who make major gifts typically want to serve as partners to, and confidants for, school leaders. If you want major gifts prospects to be generous benefactors and productive collaborators, start by forging the partnership. Donors who are petitioned for a gift before they feel like partners are much more likely to become overbearing and demanding after the gift is made. On the other hand, donors whose wisdom, counsel, and feedback are sought as part of the cultivation process deepen their relationship with the school and their trust in its leadership. This type of donor is likely not only to give more but also to be easygoing as a partner and forgiving of the school’s foibles.

1: Hope is not a strategy

I often wince when I hear a fundraising leader start a sentence with, “I hope…”. Achieving bold fundraising aspirations requires thoughtfulness, purpose, and hard work. It requires strategy that is distilled into goals and then into tactics. It requires school leaders taking an active rather than passive role in ensuring that a plan not only exists but is also sound. Merely hoping that a campaign will be completed by a particular date, that events will have their desired impact, that an ambitious goal will be met, or that an engagement initiative will lead to more and larger gifts is not a pathway to success. Making fundraising plans that are based on past performance and the potential for accelerating growth is the only route to achieving the school’s goals. To take control of a school’s fundraising outcomes, one must take control of the fundraising process.


If you would like to learn more about GG+A’s partnerships helping independent schools accelerate philanthropic revenue, contact Liz at efarr@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…