Our Finest Hour: Philanthropic Giving During the Pandemic

As I reflect on spring of 2020 and everything that has come my way this past year as the head of a small school in a rural area during the pandemic, I have realized what it truly means to be a part of a learning community—one that values education, health and well-being, and family.
 
This year, I have witnessed over and over again, and have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support to help others—a sure sign that members of our community feel an important sense of belonging. Many people made their first gift to Kent School (MD) this year, and many loyal donors increased their gifts. Despite the issues we faced globally and as a school community, this year has been Kent School’s finest hour.

Supporting Families

In March 2020, when the Maryland stay-at-home order closed school campuses, Kent School pivoted swiftly to virtual learning like many independent schools. As we reimagined what school looked like remotely, we closely followed the social and emotional health of our students, and in the first two weeks of the closure, I checked in with each family in our community. Through those phone conversations, I learned that for some students, the emotional toll of the pandemic had been heightened because of their families’ financial situations. Some own small businesses that were forced to close, and others had farms that began to have difficulties. Many of our parents are first responders who desperately needed child care, an additional cost on top of our tuition. They were not sure they would be able to stay at Kent School.
 
We believed that the school could be a symbol of hope, and, in April, we established the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Families to provide tuition assistance for families who needed support. We decided to use our annual auction—our largest fundraising event of the year and traditionally held each spring in the gym—as the primary way to get the word out and raise money. Usually, the auction features one or two items that need funding, and the remaining funds support the operating budget. Our virtual auction last year, in which bids and gifts came via text, supported only the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Families as the item that needed funding. The new fund was communicated in the auction promotional materials. We were unsure of the response we would get, but in less than two weeks from the time we introduced the fund at the auction, we raised just over $30,000 and were able to help 21 students over the course of the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 academic years. This fund continues to receive gifts and is funding one family currently for the next academic year.

Reopening Campus

In July 2020, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended a return to in-person classes in the fall, Kent School convened a task force of administrators, faculty, and medical advisors who met weekly in the summer to develop a robust set of health and safety measures designed to allow the school to adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic. From creating one-way hallways, reconfiguring classrooms, renting outdoor tents, purchasing camp chairs for outdoor learning, purchasing new desks to replace tables, installing mobile hand sanitizers, and updating air handling systems, the mitigation came with a price tag of $70,000, which was not in our operating budget.
 
Being completely transparent about our needs was instrumental in the response. We shared with our community in virtual town halls and in print how much we overspent on our budget to open safely, and to date, we’ve raised $50,000—a figure we could never have imagined last summer. Just like the response to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Families, we saw that sharing our needs, made our community feel more invested. We are continuing our quest to raise the additional $20,000 with foundation appeals. While we are unsure of what next academic year will look like, we will continue to share our progress and our needs with our community as it relates to being open safely in this time of COVID-19.

A Focus on the Future

With more than seven months of on-campus, in-person instruction under our belts, we have not had any cases of virus transmission. COVID-19 has certainly challenged education as we know it. Yet, we have converted those challenges into opportunities. Fifty-four new students enrolled at Kent School this year because we were able to be open and the majority have reenrolled. We have moved to a 1:1 technology program precipitated by the potential need for remote learning.
 
I am so grateful that donors have been compelled to contribute to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Families and to help the school safely reopen—and remain open. Our annual Osprey Fund is also at record-breaking levels and has already surpassed our goal with a few months left in our fiscal year. We were fortunate to have a generous donor who created a $10,000 dollar-for-dollar challenge for new annual fund gifts this year. Given that so many of our families were new to independent schools, we created educational messages about the business model of independent schools and shared the importance of philanthropy with them. This, combined with the challenge, was highly motivating and we are currently on track to finish this challenge in June.
 
I firmly believe that our families appreciate our efforts to be open and respect our faculty and administrators even more than they did a year ago. The pandemic has shown me that fundraising in a crisis provides meaningful engagement for donors to honor and support your efforts, while also helping donors feel deep gratitude for providing valuable and valued gifts.
 
This COVID-19 moment has truly been our finest hour.
Author
Nancy Mugele
Nancy Mugele

Nancy Mugele is head of Kent School in Chestertown, Maryland.

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