Apply the lessons from COVID and raise more money for your school

Article by Dave Marsh
AskRIGHT / 16 March 2021


Certain events are of such significance and disruption that adapting and taking notes on the lessons learned is all that can be done. A global pandemic certainly falls into this category.

Already this year, parts of Australia and New Zealand have gone into lockdown due to COVID cases in the community. The spectre of the pandemic continues to be front of mind for schools in both countries, even though day to day life feels relatively normal compared to the rest of the world.

While we are not out of the woods yet, there is increasing optimism that 2021 is shaping up to be a ‘normal’ year for school fundraising activities. Capital fundraising campaigns are back on the agenda and in-person events are being held, including this creative outdoor maze fundraiser by a rural school in NZ after its annual fundraising event had to be cancelled last year.

But before going full steam ahead, what can schools learn from last year’s COVID-enforced lessons to improve their fundraising and raise more money?

Develop stronger relationships with your donors

Connection took on a new level of significance last year. Many schools used the opportunity of alumni and donors being at home to their advantage and phoned simply to say, ‘how are you?’. Some schools enlisted senior pupils to do some of the calling. Older alumni, in particular, appreciated the connection.

Don’t stop investing in stronger relationships with your donor base simply because ‘fundraising is back on the cards’ in 2021. Make connecting with your school’s alumni and donors—simply to ask about them—an integral part of your fundraising and alumni engagement strategy. Continue to share what is happening at your school with them, particularly success stories. Focus on alumni and donors who are older. These calls are not fundraising calls per se, but you will find many of the conversations result in a financial contribution to the school. Raise money while seizing an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with your donors.

Link fundraising asks to tangible outcomes

Even in difficult and uncertain economic circumstances, donors will give if asked and there is a compelling case for support. Last year, many schools launched fundraising appeals to help cover attendance fees for pupils whose families faced difficult financial circumstances due to the pandemic. This is a good example of a fundraising ask linking to a tangible outcome. What donors need to see, particularly during a crisis, is that their social investment is making a difference.

Keep this approach going in 2021. In your annual appeal for example, have one or more tangible asks alongside the opportunity to make a donation towards general purposes. This will encourage higher levels of giving by allowing donors and alumni to visualise what their donation can achieve and the positive impact it can make within the school and broader community. Revealing to donors and alumni how their gift makes a noticeable difference will increase the amount and frequency of donations and the happiness benefits associated with their contributions[1].

Always have a digital option

COVID has taught schools to have a digital option for everything, including fundraising events, school occasions, and communication materials. Alumni and donors now expect this. Inviting alumni to view a school assembly online for example is an easy and effective way to make them feel involved in the life of the school.

However, carefully consider making something exclusively available via digital. As Tony Bretherton (Senior Consultant, AskRIGHT) writes in his article ‘Why printed alumni magazines are (still) really important’: “to raise more money, make sure you are communicating with your donors in the ways they want you to communicate with them.”

Diversify your fundraising income streams

Schools that relied heavily on in-person fundraising events understandably struggled last year. Having all fundraising eggs in one basket can leave a school in a vulnerable position.

The 2020 Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia Fundraising and Alumnae Relations Survey conducted by AskRIGHT found that over 75% of girls’ schools have fundraising events. The amounts raised from these events varied, with the most common amount between $10,001 and $50,000. However, some schools did report raising up to and even over $100,000.

If your school’s events are still producing good fundraising and engagement outcomes keep them going (while providing a digital option). At the same time, develop other fundraising income streams to supplement this. Appeals, grants, major gifts and gifts in wills are fundraising income streams that can not only increase your school’s overall fundraising revenue but diversify it sufficiently to navigate circumstances that are beyond your control.

Cut and simplify where necessary

Now is a great opportunity to cancel and bury unproductive fundraising events or community engagement activities. Take the time to have a hard look at what is and isn’t working or get someone from outside your school to do so. Reallocate the saved time and resources to diversifying your school’s fundraising.

Gifts in Wills should not be an afterthought

The potential income generated by an effective Gifts in Wills programme can be significant for a school. Around half the schools in the AGSA Survey advised that they have gifts in wills income with five schools reporting they received >$150,000 from this source in the 2019 financial year.Gifts in Wills (sometimes referred to as bequests) has the highest ROI of all fundraising activities and can result in truly transformational gifts. Will-writing in both Australia and NZ increased in 2020 as people reacted to COVID and thought about the possible impact it may have on themselves, their loved ones, and the things that they love. Developing and implementing a Gift in Wills programme requires a long-term view and sufficient resourcing by a school but the potential benefits are considerable.

Be patient with major gifts

If your school has a project, be patient in your approach with major gifts. Some prospects may still be reluctant to meet face to face or are preoccupied with rebuilding their business or career after the shock of 2020 and ongoing economic uncertainty. They still care about your school, but the timing is not quite right. Concentrate on prospects that are highly engaged first and wait for the right opportunity for others. Recent data from the US suggests that while educational institutions can expect to make significantly less major gift solicitations at this time, the drop-off in the number of major gifts is negligible as donors who are capable of giving now may feel particularly motivated because of the impact of COVID.

AskRIGHT is here to help AGSA members raise more money. If you would like a free 45-minute fundraising consultation with one of our consultants in Australia or New Zealand please click here.

About the author

Dave Marsh is a Fundraising Consultant at AskRIGHT based in Canterbury, New Zealand. Dave has nearly a decade of fundraising and communications experience with a number of charities throughout New Zealand, including the Christchurch Methodist Mission and Presbyterian Support Otago. Dave is passionate about helping charities grow their philanthropic income and raising awareness of their cause. You can reach him at [email protected].

[1] CASE White Paper – A Brief Introduction to the Science of Fundraising. Ashley V. Whillans, University of British Columbia. 2016.