Independent schools’ major gifts fundraising is not just for campaigns anymore

Too often independent schools take a “tent-like” approach to major gifts. They use their campaign budgets to put stakes in the ground and build a major gifts program immediately before a campaign. The program remains in place until the campaign ends, then they fold up the tent, because its funding source—the campaign—dries up.

While the approach might seem fiscally sound in the short term, it actually can carry significant long-term costs, represented by those gifts that didn’t happen because the institution just wasn’t focused. That lack of focus is represented by not only a lack of major gifts staffing but also the absence of fundraising priorities that attract major gifts, as well as a prospect pool that is being cultivated for near-term major gifts asks. Without all of these elements, not to mention the continual urgency around securing annual gifts to balance budgets, schools often revert to fundraising enterprises that are really just annual giving programs.

With this narrow focus on annual giving, schools often fail to secure many, if any, major gifts between campaigns. This dearth of major gifts can then lead to chief financial officers and finance committees pointing to a lack of major gift fundraising to argue against investing in the program—and this cycle repeats! Further complicating this phenomenon is the fact that many schools don’t set goals for major gifts outside of campaigns, another metric that could help them justify the program’s expense.

Missed opportunities

The stop-and-go approach to major gifts fundraising means that independent schools frequently miss securing significant support from families whose deepest relationship years may not align with a campaign. They’re also missing the opportunity to continue fundraising for long-term priorities such as scholarships and endowment. By expanding fundraising focus beyond annual giving, independent schools can build a more lasting structure that provides benefits for years to come.

I recently worked with an independent school that epitomized one of the main issues that arise when institutions fail to maintain a major gifts program: missed opportunities. The school recently solicited a couple for a campaign gift. This family had major gifts capacity and had been giving at a leadership annual giving level, but all of their children were recent graduates of the school. Although they pledged to continue their current level of support, the couple declined to make a campaign gift. They expressed  gratitude for the school’s role in their children’s lives—the reason they will continue their current level of support—but said they wouldn’t invest any more in the institution, because it is not their own alma mater and, with their children grown, it’s no longer their philanthropic priority. Sadly, this is not an uncommon story.

Most schools aren’t lacking in priorities that those in-between-campaign major gifts can address. Most have a number of evergreen priorities—such as growing endowment, compensating faculty fairly, and increasing financial assistance—that often can’t be fully funded with just one campaign or may not be as urgent a priority as the capital projects that dominate so many school campaigns.

Build the case

Of course, in order to justify a sustained investment in major gifts fundraising, chief advancement officers have to make the case that this investment will have the type of return on investment that the school needs.

Capitalizing on the investment begins with a prospect analysis that enables advancement officers to assess the school’s pool of major gift prospects and near-term fundraising opportunities. Further analyses can show how major gift fundraising declines during non-campaign years. Together this information can help make the case that schools have a significant opportunity to bolster their fundraising—if they put the infrastructure in place to solicit major gifts donors.

Implement the strategy

So what can schools do to ensure that they are focused and deliver on a more robust major gifts program between campaigns?

Here are a few key areas to address:

  • Define funding priorities that require major gifts support
  • Set multiyear goals for dollars raised toward those priorities
  • Identify the prospects who will be solicited during this period and build strategies for ensuring those asks don’t get lost to the pressure of annual giving
  • Develop reports and accountability for your team, with your Head of School and with key institutional leaders to ensure that these efforts and their outcomes are visible

With these steps in place, your school can help ensure that it is ready to build ambitious plans for its best prospects that mirror your prospects’ timeline—not your campaign’s.


Suzanne and Anne Westfall, Director of Development at the University School of Nashville, discussed how independent schools can maintain major gifts momentum in between campaigns in a recent webinar. Click here to view the webinar.  

If you need help building a major gifts program at your independent school, contact Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President and Practice Area Leader for Independent Schools, at efarr@grenzglier.com or Suzanne, GG+A President, at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…