Four questions school fundraisers should be asking right now

31 March 2020

In the midst of this coronavirus crisis we’re all asking questions and often no-one can give us a definitive answer. If we stop to work out the ‘right’ answer we are in danger of becoming paralysed by inaction.

It’s more productive to focus on identifying useful questions to ask, structuring our thinking and figuring out an answer which is ‘right-for-now’. Then being willing to adjust our decisions as the situation unfolds.

With that in mind I wanted to share four questions school fundraisers might find it useful to ask at the moment and my thinking around each.

1. How can we give something back to our school communities?

Successful fundraising and alumni relations is based on authentic reciprocal relationships – give and take between the school and the individuals in its community. Like any long-term relationship the give and take isn’t always simultaneous – we trust that it will even out over time.

In normal times the school asks community members to give support of various types, such as financial donations or volunteering their expertise and time.

Every individual who gives will want something different in return. It might be enough to experience the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing they’re helping. Alternatively, they might want something more concrete like their name on a donor list, plaque or new building.

Many schools are postponing asking for donations for the moment. However, I don’t think it’s helpful for this to be seen as a pause in fundraising. Instead, it’s a moment to switch to giving rather than asking. It’s investing in relationships and building community.

So, now is the time to ask what you can give back to each part of your school community.

We’re also seeing this happen in the wider charity sector. In a well-received recent video by the RNLI a volunteer crew member thanks donors for their past support and says, “Today we’re sending our support to you. Because you’re part of the crew and crew members look out for each other.”

2. How can we achieve our events’ strategic objectives in another way?

Every event in your calendar was there for a reason. Each one contributed to your strategic objectives in some way. It’s critical that you think through what the strategic objectives were for each event and find other ways to achieve the same goals.

Use this checklist to think each event through with your team:

  1. Who was our target audience for this event? How are they affected by the current situation?

  2. What was this event's strategic goal?

  3. How can we achieve these goals in a different way? Think creatively and be willing to trial something new.

For example, if you're postponing a legacy society event then you could make phone calls to regular attenders. No fundraising agenda, just an opportunity to connect authentically.

Or you could think more creatively: Is there a way you could build a community of alumni who pledge to keep in touch by phone over the coming months, combatting loneliness?

3. How can we adjust our metrics to demonstrate impact?

Fundraising income is a key metric for all development offices. However, the flow of donations will be negatively impacted by the current situation. We shouldn’t feel that we can’t ask at the moment, but we need to think carefully about what we are asking for and our messaging.

Honest conversations with heads and bursars about the impact on donation income is therefore important. As always, fundraising is a long-term game. Pausing fundraising asks now to strengthen relationships and prepare for the economic rebound is a good long-term strategy, although it will reduce short-term income flows.

In the meantime, ensure your metrics are measuring the new ways you are achieving your community engagement objectives. Not only will this allow you to track progress but it will communicate to senior school leaders how the development office continues to add value in ways other than fundraising.

4. What can we do now so we bounce back stronger?

In addition to this visible work strengthening relationships, development offices also need to think about what they can do now behind-the-scenes to bounce back stronger than ever.

This is the key strategic work which needs to be undertaken now across every part of the school. The quality of your strategic thinking at this point is what will mark your school apart.

This is the area which is hardest to predict, but here are some ideas to consider:

An even stronger case for support

As Howard Lake predicted we are already seeing a big increase in coronavirus-related fundraising appeals from charities, individuals and for-profit businesses.

In order to compete for people’s attention and donations schools are going to need a fully-updated, compelling case for support. You need to make the case for why this is the time to support your project. How what you are doing will contribute to society’s come-back after all this is over.

Be ready to ask when the time is right

A pause will be in order for some fundraising asks and there appears to be a charity sector-wide pause in legacy asking in particular. The economic impact of this crisis will be significant, so some donors will see a fall in disposable income flowing from their employment or investments. However, there will be people whose finances are less affected, such as potential donors who maintain their salary.

There can be no blanket advice for when it’s appropriate to make a fundraising ask. Keep communication channels open with potential donors, dial up your empathy to their situation, strengthen your case for support and be ready to ask when the time is right.

Learning through innovation

It’s well known in the field of organisational learning that trying new things increases the knowledge and skill set within an organisation. At the moment we are all having to innovate, especially in our use of technology. As long as you maintain your empathetic messaging and are authentic, people are very forgiving currently if you give something a go and it doesn’t work perfectly the first time.

Now is the time to embrace this spirit of trial and error. Audit your development office skill set and identify the gaps. Then focus trial and error in these areas so you emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

Keep asking questions and find the ‘right-for-now’ answers

Lengthy deliberations over the ‘right’ answers is not a good use of your time at the moment – tomorrow may bring another unexpected change which shifts everything again.

Instead, exercise your strategic thinking skills by asking yourself these questions and focussing on the ‘right-for-now’ answers.


Agree? Disagree?

I always welcome feedback - debate and conversation sparks innovation! Contact me via LinkedIn or Twitter.


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Juliet Corbett is an experienced strategy consultant working with schools and fundraisers to help them achieve their vision faster.

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