8 Best Practices for K-12 School Fundraising

Ryan Woroniecki
March 2, 2016

If you work in advancement at a private or independent school, you know all of your hard work and hours spent fundraising are well worth it when you see students excelling in their academic pursuits. In order to get to that point and watch your school flourish as the top-tier educational institution that it is, you’ll need equally top-tier fundraising strategies.

As an organization invested in fundraising, you’ll want to follow the lead of nonprofits and other educational institutions, borrowing from their techniques. There’s a ton of great information available on topics ranging from nonprofit marketing to donor acquisition and retention and plenty of topics in between.Equipped with that strong base, you can adjust the time-tested techniques to best suit the needs of your specific school.

Graduate to the next level of fundraising with these eight tips:

  1. Hold a goal-setting session.
  2. Draft a team.
  3. Prospect screen parents and alumni.
  4. Host a great school fundraiser
  5. Keep giving levels in mind.
  6. Know the best strategies for asking for donations.
  7. Reach your donors where they want to be reached.
  8. Gauge your fundraising success.
For a lengthier, more comprehensive discussion of fundraising for private and independent schools, check out DonorSearch’s private and independent school fundraising guide.

1. Hold a goal-setting session.

When it comes time to put a fundraising plan in place, it is important that the team leading the way sits down and puts some goals on paper. A fundraiser planning without goals is like a basketball player practicing free throws without a hoop.

Both need somewhere to aim.

As you map out your goals, consider the following questions:

  • How will this round of fundraising serve your school’s mission?
  • What has changed about your mission since your last round of brainstorming goals?
  • Where will these newly acquired funds be allocated?
  • What’s the best possible use of the funds that you gather?

While answering these questions, you’ll gain a better understanding of the role fundraising has to play in the overall improvement and continued prosperity of your school.

For instance, your brainstorming might lead you to realize that you need to host a fundraising event like a trivia tournament or a talent show.

Pro tip: When selecting an event for your school fundraising campaign, consider the following characteristics:

  • How much will the event cost to put on?
  • How difficult will it be to organize?
  • What is the grade level of your audience?
  • Will parents and alumni be invited?
  • Will food be involved?
  • Do you want to also incorporate product fundraising into your campaign? 

There are dozens of events and ideas that are perfect for school fundraising so take sufficient time to do your research before committing to an event. 

Or you might decide that the best solution to your fundraising needs is a capital campaign (Learn more about capital campaigns here: http://www.donorsearch.net/capital-campaigns-guide/).

Use the information learned during your goal setting to craft a fundraising story that will appeal to donors, no matter the fundraising route you choose to take.  

Think about where your school came from and what it hopes to accomplish thanks to additional funding from your loyal supporters.

2. Draft a team.

You’ve certainly heard the expression, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Well, do you know what else was true of the construction of Rome? It wasn’t built by one person.

To gather the most donations possible for your school, you’ll need a network of fundraisers.

Take advantage of the diverse array of possible team members you have, such as:

  • School staff
  • Parents
  • Administrators
  • Teachers
  • Students

The list doesn’t even stop there.

You know the best fundraising candidates in your school’s community. You know your most loyal advocates. Get out there and ask them to get involved!

Remember that this excellent group is going to need excellent guidance.

Ensure that your extensive network is on the same page and working as a unit. That way, you get the advantage of multiple outreach opportunities, while keeping the team unified, which only benefits your school in the long run.

3. Prospect screen parents and alumni.

A core component of managing your donor pool is going to be regular prospect screenings. As a school, you have the added benefit of a built-in prospect generator — new student enrollment.

The constant rotation of students can be seen as a challenge to keep up with, but it also brings the prospects to you, which is a benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Screen parents and alumni in segments at numerous points throughout the year to make the process more efficient and effective.

You can segment your giving candidates into:

  • New students/families
  • Existing students/families
  • Recent alumni
  • Long-standing alumni

Additionally, you can divide your screenings across four time periods:

  • Early summer
  • Late summer
  • Winter break
  • Spring break

Between those four time periods and the four segments suggested earlier, you’ll be able to handle the influx of new donors and keep the remainder of your donor database up to date.

4. Host a great school fundraiser

There are lots of ways to raise money for your school or university, and while you won’t be able to host an awesome event every week, you can elect to strategically plan for a few fundraising events throughout the year.

There are a plethora of fundraising events up for grabs, from school auctions to coffee fundraisers. The list is nearly endless, but no matter what you choose to host, it's important that you schedule your event for optimal fundraising.

Certain times work best for school fundraising events. You should try to plan your fundraiser:

    • At the beginning of the school year: Most students and parents are excited about starting a new school year. Energy is high during the first few weeks of school, making this the perfect for an active school fundraising event like a walkathon. The weather is almost always perfect in late August and early September, making an active fundraising event ideal.
    • Right before winter break: You can’t realistically host a fundraising event over the holiday season. Most families are gone visiting friends or relatives, and school is out anyway! But a pre-winter break auction can be the perfect fundraising event. You can serve cocoa, cider, and holiday treats while parents bid on various items. An auction brings your school together to raise money before the holidays and allows parents to do some easy holiday shopping at the same time.
    • During the spring semester: April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers bring...fundraising dollars! Your school can host a Spring Fling dance (for parents, students, or both) to bring in some extra cash before the kids leave for the summer.

Of course, there are tons of other types of fundraising events that your school could host. Always consider ways to incorporate multiple school fundraising strategies into your events, too! For instance, accept donations to your in-kind collection drive in exchange for admission or snacks at your event.

No matter what event you decide to host, you will have to do some planning ahead of time to ensure that your fundraiser runs smoothly. 

Event fundraising software is a valuable tool to have; not only will it help you organize your event, but it can also help you raise additional funds during your fundraiser. 

Think about it this way: perhaps you decide to host a school auction. With software on your side, you'll be able to:

  • Track your RSVPs.
  • Create a catalog of your items. 
  • Use mobile bidding during your event. 
  • Accept text-to-give donations.
  • And so much more!

With so many ways to help run your event, it's no wonder why nonprofits use fundraising software to manage all their events—big or small!

Not every tool has the same capabilities or will be ideal for every event. Therefore, you need to evaluate your needs before you finalize your purchase. For a list of top performing fundraising tools, check out this comprehensive list

5. Keep giving levels in mind.

Not every donor can give an equal amount. This is true across all types of fundraising and certainly applies to school fundraising.

Use what you learned about your prospects during your screenings to segment donors into giving levels.

Common giving levels include:

  • Small gifts
  • Mid-level
  • Annual fund
  • Major giving
  • Planned giving
  • And more

It might sound like a lot to keep track of, but if you can segment your potential donors ahead of time, you’ll be able to enhance your cultivation processes and customize your asking strategies.

You can sort your candidates using prospect research to determine their financial capacity to make a donation and philanthropic interest in doing so.

Keep in mind, past giving is the strongest indicator of future giving.

So when you’re looking candidates for higher levels of giving, it’s a good idea to start with your existing donor pool. This is especially true of major giving.

We’ve even found that, “A donor who has made a gift between $5k - $10k to a nonprofit organization is 5 times as likely to donate charitably as an average person is.”

Don’t look past such predictive data! The more segmented your donor pool is, the less likely you are to miss such key details.

When you break your large prospect pool into smaller donor groups who all share similar traits, your pile of prospect profiles will suddenly feel far more manageable. Divide and conquer!

6. Know the best strategies for asking for donations.

When it comes time to actually make fundraising requests, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible.

Part of that preparation should involve studying the ideal strategies for asking for donations.

In her guide on the subject, Abby Jarvis breaks down the process into three phases:

  1. Before the ask.
  2. During the ask.
  3. After the ask.

And each phase comes with it’s own preparations and challenges.

Before the ask — You’ll want to do ample planning and research, both of which have been discussed earlier in this article.

During the ask — You’ll want to come in with a plan but be ready to change according to the prospect’s reactions (gift solicitation strategies receive in-depth coverage here, if you’d like to learn more.).

After the ask — You’ll want to thank your supporter multiple times across multiple channels. Then, you’ll want to strategize about how best to move forward with stewardship and ongoing engagement.

Think about some ways to raise funds that don't require you to directly ask for financial donations, too. Fundraising collection drives, like of new and used shoes, are a great example of an easy way to raise funds without directly soliciting parents.

Asking for donations will never be a cakewalk. There are always going to be inherent challenges. In order to succeed in spite of those challenges, your school has to charge full steam ahead through these three phases of asking for donations.

Be confident in the work you’ve done to prepare and in your ability to secure gifts for the good of your school.

7. Reach your donors where they want to be reached.

While we’re on the subject of asking for donations, it’s critical to consider if your school is doing a good enough job of reaching donors where they like to be reached.

We live in a golden age of technology. Donor communication channels abound.

You can reach out to potential donors:

  • In-person
  • On Facebook
  • On the the phone
  • Through email
  • Through direct mail
  • Via text message
  • And so much more

At this point, effective donor outreach is a manageable and achievable goal.

Let’s consider, for example, the many benefits a school fundraiser would reap from mobile fundraising.

Sure, teachers are always asking their students to get off their smartphones, but now’s the time for the exception to the rule: school-sanctioned, cell phone usage.

Thanks in large part to their usefulness, mobile giving donations have increased by 205% since last year. Yes. You read that correctly.

Your parents, your alumni, your teachers, your students, and everyone else are all on their cell phones. Why not incorporate mobile fundraising into your ongoing plans?

Mobile fundraising runs the gamut from text-to-give to donation pages optimized for mobile to peer-to-peer software.

If you smartly use your mobile platform to grow your school’s donor base, you can then use tactics like prospect research to turn those one-time donors into lifetime donors.

8. Gauge your fundraising success.

When fundraising organizations look to improve, they rely on success metrics to guide their efforts.

Your school should be no exception.

Whether you already have tracking systems in place or need complete guidance, you can check out this list of popular nonprofit performance indicators to get you started.

Common metrics include:

  • Cost per dollar raised (CPDR): Just as it sounds, cost per dollar raised compares how much money you put into a fundraiser with how much money the fundraiser made. You want your cost per dollar raised to be under 1 and as close to 0 as possible.
  • Conversion rate: Conversion rate examines your school’s ability to successfully have a donor complete an action. For instance, if you want your alumni to follow the link from an email and donate, every alumnus who makes a donation boosts your conversion rate.
  • Donor growth: Speaking to donor acquisition and your ability to retain the donors that you have, donor growth looks at how many donors your school has year-over-year.
  • Asks made: A popular metric for those seeking major gifts, asks made is exactly as it sounds. You can’t secure a gift that you don’t ask for, and tracking this metric is a good way of forcing your fundraisers to reflect on how many metaphorical “at bats” they’ve had in a given time period.
  • And there are plenty more metrics to track and review beyond these four!

You’ll have a large selection to choose from, so pick the metrics that will work well with the current goals of your school.

Running a successful fundraising campaign at a K-12 school, and really any organization seeking donations, will take time, creativity, and perseverance.

Take these eight best practices into account the next time you ready your school for a fundraising push.

Ryan Woroniecki is the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at DonorSearch, a prospect research, screening, and analytics company that focuses on proven philanthropy. He has worked with hundreds of nonprofits and is a member of APRA-MD. When he isn’t working, he is an avid kickball player. 

Topics: Fundraising
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