Raising funds for even the most noble of causes can seem daunting at times, but especially in the midst of a crisis. Determining the right balance of activities and deciding whether donors should even be asked during difficult times has been the topic of many discussions this year, and has weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of Christian school leaders. How can I ask for funds for my school while there are millions affected by a global health crisis? How can I ask donors to give when so many people have lost jobs and income this year? Wouldn’t it be better to put our fundraising on hold until this all blows over? These are just a few of the most commonly asked development questions of 2020.
Now imagine being a loyal donor to an organization or cause that you believe in. You have given faithfully over several years and you have gotten to know the leaders of the organization. You might even consider them friends. You have worked together to accomplish some remarkable and exciting things over the years. Now enter a natural disaster, global pandemic, or local crisis, and all communication from the organization you have enjoyed working with suddenly stops. The mission has not stopped. The organization and its leaders are still all working hard to serve the community; the only difference is that now they are doing it without you. You are not invited. You no longer have the opportunity to make a difference.
This is what has been happening to donors throughout the nonprofit community. The work has not stopped. The mission has not changed. We have just stopped inviting people to be a part of what God is doing through our schools. Yet one of the most critical rules of donor development is not trying to decide for the donor. The donor is the one who chooses to jump in or not, to give or not give, they decide to say “yes” or “no”. We should never be in the business of deciding for them. As leaders and development professionals, our job is to inform, inspire, invite, and involve people in the mission of the school. Then we affirm their response and appreciate them for their time and generosity. We do not get to decide for our donors, and we certainly should not stop communicating with them.
Donors need to hear from us. Keep them connected to the mission. Inspire them with what your school (their school) has been able to accomplish this year even in the midst of significant challenges. Express your appreciation for your faculty, staff, students, and parents; celebrate how they are adapting to changing circumstances with character and resiliency. Share about God’s goodness, and communicate how much you value the community that has walked faithfully alongside your school throughout 2020. Highlight the positive aspects of what you hope to accomplish together. Help them to envision a preferred future, and then identify what it will take to get there. Ask donors, parents, community members, and students what else they would like to see, invite them to give advice about timing for next steps, and include them in building the vision with you. Then ask them to help support that vision financially. Not your vision, but the vision that they have helped to co-create with their input, wisdom, experience, enthusiasm, and prayers.
This may seem far too optimistic and unrelated to the daily reality of declining enrollments, debates about remote learning, arguments about masks, and floundering operational budgets, but the simple truth is that everyone wants to be part of a winning team. If you want donors to join your school’s team to make a difference for your students and community, then it is imperative to highlight what your school is doing well and what you hope for the future, even if the road to get there is a difficult one.
I have seen fundraising appeals in the past six months that look far more like ultimatums rather than invitations to accomplish something meaningful together (i.e. Unless we can raise x amount of money, by such and such date, we will have to close our doors). When a donor hears you need significant funds to cover a financial operating gap, they also hear that your school does not manage its resources well. This actually makes donors more cautious about giving to your school; it does not inspire them to give you more money.
Donors give to opportunity rather than need. The opportunity to help, to make a difference, to accomplish something great, or to leave a legacy. Donors do not give money simply because you need money. This is the fundamental flaw in how far too many school leaders approach fundraising. You have the opportunity to inform, inspire, invite and involve your donors in training the next generation of leaders. Leaders who will walk into the future armed with character, wisdom, and a Christian worldview. That is a vision worth celebrating, but one that we cannot accomplish alone. We need our donors, make sure they know.[Editor’s Note: This blog is co-published by the WLCE blog and the ACSI blog in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]