(Don’t) Mind the Gap: Why It’s Time to Change the Conversation Around the Annual Fund

(Don’t) Mind the Gap: Why It’s Time to Change the Conversation Around the Annual Fund

It’s time to change the conversation around annual funds. Traditionally, many independent school annual funds have focused on “bridging the gap” or closing the chasm that exists between tuition costs and a school’s operating expenses.

Annual funds are often used to cover the discrepancy between tuition and the full cost to educate a child—from technology and equipment to extracurricular activities and, of course, financial aid. In some cases, this gap can be as much as $10,000 or more per student. But focusing solely on this number in annual appeals can kill future donor conversations when acute needs arise. Say a flood damages the science lab or the boys’ locker room needs mold remediation, if a donor has already given to cover the gap, development officers may face hesitancy when asking for more help during the school year.  Furthermore, as institutions consider major campaigns focused on endowment, capital, or other strategic priorities, the “bridging the gap” messaging can dilute the importance of supporting the institution holistically.

It’s best to focus beyond the gap and keep annual fund appeals fluid. Share with constituents the fact that annual fund dollars can fund everything from diversity programs to faculty development to athletic field improvements to curriculum enhancements. Keeping the messaging dynamic allows schools to pivot when necessary. For example, many independent schools across the country relied on annual fund dollars to implement health protocols and virtual learning programs during the pandemic. In contrast, an appeal that asks for more money to cover tuition shortfalls when schools charge up to $60K a year for tuition seems like a set-up. The solution – keep solicitations flexible and look for new ways to engage parents, alumni and friends.

Make it Real

Today’s sophisticated donors want to know that their gifts, regardless of size, will have a measurable impact—and an impact that adds value, not helps balance an overextended budget.

Give concrete examples of what a specific monetary gift can buy. Come up with a diverse list that appeals to a variety of constituents’ interests. This helps engage donors to support a cause they believe in, while helping them feel more connected. Shifting your message to encourage donors to make their annual gifts in support of programs or academic departments that they are most passionate about will motivate stay-the-course donors to give more and may attract new supporters. For this reason, many schools are opting to re-brand the annual fund with a name that more accurately reflects recuring philanthropic investments made at the school. “The Fund for…” and other similar names help make the case for how donations directly impact the school and its students as well as reinforce that donors may make a number of gifts rather than just one annually.

At Hopkins School, an independent, gender-inclusive, college-preparatory day school for grades 7-12, in New Haven, CT, gifts to the Hopkins Fund can be directed to several different areas, including academics, athletics, financial aid, faculty support and technology, with all categories clearly outlined on its website. “Every gift helps us continue our 360-plus year tradition of providing an excellent education to our students,” said Tom Diascro, Chief Advancement Officer. “Donors can support the Fund for Social Justice, which brings distinguished speakers to campus, or the Pathfinder program, which offers academic enrichment, preparation for rigorous, college preparatory high school programs, and high school options counseling for high achieving 5th-8th grade students who attend New Haven public and parochial schools. Inviting donors to pick the area that means the most to them is one more way for us to continue cultivating meaningful relationships.”

Create a Buzz

Consider hosting a themed Day of Giving that engages parents, alumni and friends in a day-long event that encourages full participation and builds momentum while supporting your school’s mission. This can include live updates, matching challenges, faculty and coach appeals and peer-to-peer fundraising. Get creative!

Greens Farms Academy (PreK-12) in Westport, CT, hosted its second All in for GFA Giving Day on May 5, 2022, with a fundraising extravaganza in partnership with Give Campus. Highlights included a captivating video featuring snapshots of boys and girls in rivaling red and blue school tee shirts competing in field day competitions. The vibe screamed fun, with lots of smiling faces, cheers, fist pumps, and hugs.

GFA’s comprehensive strategy incorporated social media updates and website scrolls of matching and featured gifts; donor primers on matches and personal pleas; and toolkits with tips for social media posts, complete with downloadable graphics and field day tug-of-war photos. And that’s not all! An Advocates section boasted how many clicks a donor’s post generated as well as the number of gifts and total amounts stemmed from each posting. A First in Class feature showed giving from parents, alumni, students, grandparents and friends broken down by class year, with number of donors and gift totals. The high-energy blitz continued throughout the day with giving updates and photo refreshes.

“Our All in for GFA Giving Day exceeded our expectations and proved a tremendous success, with 951 donors contributing more than $787,000, well above our original $350,000 goal, which we raised several times throughout the day,” said Joe Flynn, Director of Institutional Advancement. “Hosting our day-long GFA Fund appeal around our school’s field day generates school spirit and gives us an opportunity to share heart-warming photos and videos. The continuous updates also inspire a healthy sense of competition that increases donations. In all, it’s a fun way to involve our community and create a day where everyone enjoys participating.”

Extend a Helping Hand

Emphasize that contributing to your school’s annual fund can help provide financial aid for disadvantaged students. Show friends and partners how their gifts can help change students’ lives. Illustrate the impact prior giving has impacted disadvantaged students through videos and testimonials. Include alumni who benefited from such programs to participate in fundraising appeals.

Fordham Preparatory School, a Catholic Jesuit boy’s high school in the Bronx, offers REACH scholarships to highly motivated area students from a wide array of backgrounds and national origins. Since its inception in 2006, REACH has assisted 68 students and remains a robust draw for philanthropy. What’s more, a new scholarship fund was recently announced to honor the School’s most recent president’s 9-year tenure. The Christopher J. Devron, SJ, REACH Endowed Scholarship will expand the Prep’s ability to provide financial assistance to the continually increasing number of qualified students from the REACH program.

“Many donors appreciate giving to our REACH program, which provides scholarships to gifted students who otherwise could not afford a Fordham Prep education,” said Suzanne Dowden, Director of Engagement and Development. “Donors can really see the impact, thanks to our customized stewardship reports, in-person donor visits and student meetings. The fantastic success rate of our REACH scholars is evident in the fact that 98 percent of these students go on to attend four-year colleges, and many attend top tier universities.”

Meet Donors Where They’re At

Always strive to engage your entire donor community and stress that every gift, no matter how large of small, matters, especially amid the current economic uncertainty. Make every donor feel essential to your school’s mission, especially young alums. Seek to engage recent alumni in new ways, perhaps by segmenting your donor base. Encourage a former sports team to give to honor a favorite coach or former band students to consider assisting with purchasing instruments. Expand your reach wherever possible, tailoring your messaging to target specific groups, such as parents, grandparents, faculty and even trustees. The options are endless.

Use social media, emails and snail mail to show appreciation. Pick up the phone and say thank you. If a development officer calls to express gratitude, the chances of that donor getting on board when an unforeseen need arises grows. Make your supporters feel special and valued. Always end with thank you.

Create a Bright Future

With comprehensive planning and a strategic vision, your school can shift its messaging to create a more solid annual fund. At its core, the annual fund’s purpose is to keep schools vibrant, nimble and able to attract and retain gifted students and faculty. Always keep the future in mind. Remember, what you’re envisioning today will help ensure students will continue to receive an extraordinary education many years from now.

More From This Author

A development executive with more than 40 years of experience, Jay launched The Angeletti Group, LLC (TAG) in 2006 – a consulting firm designed to partner with clients engaged in independent and higher education, healthcare and academic medicine, and community building initiatives. Jay received his B.A. from Lake Forest College and studied public administration and nonprofit management at the University of Connecticut.