Editor’s Note: Since its publication, this article has become one of our most read and shared. While the information is especially relevant for independent schools at back-to-school time, its overall lessons for fundraisers in every sector endure.


Original Post: August 25, 2015

Last year the Foxcroft School, a small, all-girls’ boarding school in Virginia, was astonished and thrilled to receive a $40 million gift from an alumna. While most school development officers, no matter how successful, may never see such a large donation, one can dream—and pick up helpful strategies on laying the groundwork for major gifts.

Clearly the development staff at this independent school did many things right. What were the building blocks for this donation and how can they be useful to fundraisers at other independent schools?

Of course, there’s an element of luck involved in obtaining such a large gift. But as we’ve said before, philanthropy is all about building and nurturing relationships. Foxcroft’s development office maintained close ties with the donor, who always gave to the annual fund. The donor received handwritten notes, phone calls, and visits a few times a year, and always got a call at the end of the fiscal year thanking her for all she’d done.

Foxcroft, a mature, well-established school, has a development team in place. What if your school is new and growing? In the early stages of an independent school’s growth, fundraising is fairly straightforward, tapping into a prospective pool of donors that includes alumni and parents of current and former students. As a school becomes more established and builds on its successes, philanthropy becomes more sophisticated. If the school’s board plans properly, fundraising should become part of the financing enterprise of the school.

Let’s take a look at the annual fund, an essential tool in any independent school’s fundraising success. Through it you build your donor database and long-term sustainability. Your annual fund is a great way to cover budget shortfalls, tuition assistance and other essentials. It also prepares you for launching a capital or endowment campaign. Future campaign donors are frequently identified through annual fund support.

Many donors will enhance their support for specific projects they’re truly interested in. So in addition to an annual campaign, your school may want to consider a targeted campaign focused around a cause or project. The results may open your eyes to new possibilities. A few years ago a small independent school in New Jersey launched a targeted appeal to raise funds to purchase laptop computers for every upper-school student. The campaign was a great success, aided by the participation of a few parents who stepped into leadership fundraising roles for the first time. These were not the usual parents who gave major gifts. This group believed in educational technology and used their powers of persuasion to convince others. The ultimate success of this campaign gave this board much to think about, and was instrumental in the decision to launch a major campaign a few years later.

The success of a targeted effort is a strong indicator that a school is ready to take on a broader major gifts campaign. It shows that donors are behind your initiatives. If your targeted campaign doesn’t work, you should ask yourself why. It could be a sign that your priorities are not aligned with those of your donors.

Solid results from your annual fund can indicate that it’s time to do some research about the feasibility of a larger campaign. You may want to consider moving beyond traditional wealth and philanthropy screening to advanced analytics research. These sophisticated tools help place a focus on where the major donors are. It will help you make data-driven decisions on which potential prospects are most likely to give large donations.

To build on your school’s growth, use all the tools at your disposal. Approach fundraising professionally from the top down: from your board to the staff and faculty. Engage and educate your entire community in what you are trying to accomplish and you’ll have great results.