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Board best practices for independent school fundraising

Whether in a campaign or not, the board of trustees plays a crucial role in independent school fundraising success. Collectively and individually, trustees can make a critical difference with their own generosity, and they can amplify that impact as advocates, arbiters, partners, and cheerleaders. The most successful school fundraising programs have generous and active boards in the lead.

Here are five ways that high-functioning boards support philanthropy at their schools.

Trustees play a key role in approving fundraising priorities and set realistic fundraising goals for their pursuit.

Far too many programs are hamstrung by a lack of vetted and approved fundraising priorities. Development leaders and gift officers who lack options raise far less money than those with clear objectives. Trustees must be involved in identifying, vetting, and advocating for the school’s strategic priorities; this is part of the board’s governing and fiduciary duty. This process is usually guided by a strategic plan and by the vision of the head of school. Next, trustees must determine how philanthropic revenue can and should help fund the strategic priorities. Trustees can provide realism and discipline to approaching philanthropic priorities, which must be rooted in past performance, fundraising trajectory, and prospective donor pool. Only trustees can determine what mix of philanthropy, borrowing, use of reserves, and operating support may be needed to achieve a school priority. Fundraising alone is rarely the strategy that works.

Trustees make pace-setting gifts and make them early.

The board is the group that best understands the school’s priorities because it helped develop and approve them. For this reason, in an annual giving effort or a major campaign, trustees should set the pace and serve as examples to others. They endorse the goals, create momentum, provide energy, and inspire confidence. By being leaders in giving, trustees can show they have skin in the game and can ask others to join them in giving at leadership levels. The strongest programs might see one-quarter to one-third or more of philanthropic revenue coming from board members, and frequently it is a board member who makes the cornerstone gift in a building campaign or an endowment effort. By setting examples, trustees raise the sights of other lead donors.

Board members identify prospective donors, cultivate them, and sometimes participate in solicitations.

Board members need to understand that every trustee can and should play some role in the major gifts process. The first thing we often hear when trustees are asked to support fundraising is that they fear “asking for money.” The next sentence usually begins, “I will do anything but…” However, all trustees can help identify prospective donors and provide information about their backgrounds, capabilities, and attitudes toward the school. All can participate in stewardship and usually feel happy to play that role. A select few are strong solicitors themselves, or they can be an able partner for a head of school in a key solicitation. They can “tell the story” of the vision, the project, the initiative, and the opportunity in front of the school. They can endorse the effort and describe their own reasons for giving. Active trustees extend fundraising capacity beyond the staff and head of school, and schools that don’t utilize trustees are missing out, since active volunteers almost always give more themselves.

The board maintains a strong trustee identification, recruitment, and onboarding strategy that includes clear fundraising and philanthropic expectations.

Many boards fail at having clear expectations and honest conversations. Prospective trustees need to understand that the board must give and must get gifts. Sometimes this conversation seems more like an apology or an awkward topic. In those cases, new members are left confused, and expectations are unclear. Each new trustee brings his or her own circumstances, but all can help and deserve clear guidance. Committees on trustees need to recognize that they can address all of their criteria for membership in areas like skills and diversity, in addition to philanthropic experience and fundraising leadership with other organizations. The most successful school fundraising programs have formal trustee onboarding programs that set expectations for philanthropy. Regular board education reinforces for all that fundraising responsibility is constant.

The board is always trying to learn more about philanthropy.

Top fundraising boards engage in ongoing education and training. They discuss philanthropy at the full board level. They ask their development leaders and outside experts to bring forward stimulating topics for discussion. Trustees with experiences on other boards are invited to share stories of successes from other venues. They see philanthropy as an engine that causes dreams to be realized. They find ways to celebrate philanthropy.

Board leaders should examine how they are doing against these criteria and where they might plan to improve. It is their responsibility to see that the school is well organized in every way for fundraising success, and they must acknowledge the central role they play.

If you would like to learn more about GG+A’s work with independent school boards, contact Jim at jmckey@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Jim McKey

Senior Vice President

Jim McKey, Senior Vice President, brings more than 25 years of experience in fundraising and administration for academic institutions. Jim has extensive experience in planning and managing campaigns; evaluating current programs; defining successful donor strategies; working with governing boards; and identifying opportunities and solutions for growth. Before joining GG+A full-time,…