Helen Colson is a leading expert in independent school advancement. Her 360-degree view of philanthropy comes from her experiences as a director of development, trustee, teacher and author, and consultant to schools in the U.S. and abroad.
You work hard to make your website, printed materials and social media outreach relevant, timely and persuasive. But don’t forget that, for major gift prospects, the most effective communication is often face to face. If you are a director of communications, make sure that the entire administration understands this important fact.
At every independent school, large or small, urban or rural, fund-raising success depends on major gifts. That’s why the best fund raisers visit their top prospects on a regular basis to keep them up to date, to give them a sense of belonging, and to seek their lifetime loyalty and support.
In today’s world, directors of communications, annual fund or alumni, and assistant head of school, are also major gifts officers. You should know who the top prospects are and reach out to them whenever you can. At many schools, all senior staff members have their own portfolios of major gift prospects whom they research, cultivate and steward.
Who are the major gift prospects? They are individuals whose capacity to give, philanthropic bent and affection for the school put them in the top ten percent of the prospect pool. Many have a track record of growing support and a deep commitment nurtured over a long period of time. This essential ten percent is likely to give ninety percent of the school’s total voluntary support. The first step is to identify them; the second is to build a close relationship, to discover their passions and pet peeves. Then it is time to strategize a gift request that connects with the prospect’s interests.
The head of school is often the most appropriate major gift solicitor. He or she should recognize the importance of a major gifts program and allocate a predictable portion of time to courting and soliciting individuals identified as having the ability and commitment to support the school generously. Hopefully every school head is able to recognize the school’s top ten donors on the soccer field or at a school event. At some schools, long-term faculty members stay in touch with top prospects as well.
Development directors should allocate twenty percent of their time to organizing and implementing a major gifts program. If the staff is limited, contain the number of major prospects you and your colleagues reach in a single year. But don’t say that you are all too busy with other tasks.
Even if your school has a large and competent group of development, communications and other administration personnel, key trustees and volunteers play a role in cultivating, soliciting and stewarding the most important prospects and donors. These trustees and volunteers serve on major gifts committees; they host cultivation events; they help to evaluate and solicit prospective donors. The development director should meet with all of these essential partners and assign appropriate specific tasks. The communications office should work closely with development to produce personalized case materials to use in prospect meetings.
A major gifts program is an ongoing process whether or not a capital campaign is in progress. The program requires a regular focus, and it can’t be rushed. Often the more patient the solicitor is, the larger the eventual gift will be. All trustees and school administrators should remember this key verity: Major gifts reflect the depth of a donor’s commitment rather than the magnitude of the institution’s need.
Today’s reality is that many schools have fewer donors who are making larger gifts. It is only through a major gift focus that your school can fulfill its true fund-raising potential. So plan to visit a major gift prospect next week!