Building a Culture of Philanthropy

Spring 2021

By Kimberly Eber

020421-Independent-School_Spring21-Print.jpgI’m relatively new to independent schools, having spent many years in university fundraising working in major and annual giving. I have found unique fundraising challenges and opportunities at independent schools, but the common thread that runs through both environments is that effective and sustainable fundraising comes from cultivating a culture of philanthropy—something that runs much deeper than giving to the annual fund and attending the annual gala. A true culture of philanthropy focuses the donor on the short- and long-term impact of their giving, providing them with a sense of meaning that is more than an immediate transaction and connects them with the larger context of their giving. Building this kind of culture at a school is fundamental to creating sustainable and meaningful engagement that goes beyond graduation and is compelling to donors outside the school community.
When I arrived at Sonoma Academy in June of 2018, about 75% of our families gave to the annual fund and a smaller percentage attended, contributed to, or volunteered to support the annual gala, our other major fundraising effort. We focused on “help us meet our 100% participation goal” in our annual fund messaging and billed the annual gala as a fun time to get together in support of the school, loosely connected with the idea that the funds raised supported our teachers. But did this engagement and messaging signal a culture of giving at our school? No.
After spending a few years learning more about the school community and keeping our fundraising approach relatively consistent with the way it had been done, it became clear to me that we were missing crucial opportunities to connect with our donors, and we were not reaching the benchmarks set for these transactional giving approaches. Yes, we raised the money we needed to, but we never reached 100% participation, and we found that our most important donors were more motivated by the intersection of their personal passions with our mission and strategic initiatives. Further, I had come from institutions in which alumni engagement and giving were fundamental to advancement efforts and the long-term financial sustainability of the school. But at Sonoma Academy, which is 20 years old, we had almost no alumni engagement with any of our fundraising efforts; in fact, we didn’t even have up-to-date contact information for most of our 1,000 alumni.
We realized that instead of continuing with the same fundraising tactics we’d been relying on for so many years, we needed to assess the school culture and community and identify how to raise money in a more meaningful and relevant way—a way that allows us to have a transformational impact on our school, our community, and our students. We began this process before the pandemic began and have found in the past year that these shifts in thinking have helped accelerate our efforts to reenvision how we raise funds. We started by focusing on three fundraising fundamentals, and if done correctly, the work we do in these areas will help us move away from transactional giving and toward an established culture of philanthropy that more truly represents our school’s values and will continue for many years to come.

The Annual Fund

We started thinking about how the term “annual fund” reduces the donor experience to a transaction conducted once a year and, in a way, suggests that the further you get along in the year, the less urgency there is to give. It’s hard to ask for donations in May for a year that ends in June. In addition, the commonly used term potentially leaves money on the table, reducing the experience to something like a task that the donor needs to check off the to-do list once a year.
To acknowledge the perennial nature of fundraising, we renamed our annual fund; it is now the Sonoma Academy Fund, positioning it as more of a cause-driven fund and shifting how the money is used. As with the annual fund, all revenue is spent in the current school year; however, instead of emphasizing the timing of our community’s support, we want to more accurately reflect the purpose and impact of their giving. Our communication approach has shifted from a focus on the “when” to “why”—telling stories about the impact of the funds, eliminating the idea of 100% participation, and focusing on direct, individualized appeals to major donors. We’ve also increased our transparency about how the money is used and why a gift given at any time is meaningful and necessary. 
A cause-driven fund is easier to describe, define, and support. Educating teenagers and operating a school is an ongoing activity, and although the budget is drawn annually, the education is delivered for as long as the student is at our school (and, really, long after). A cause-driven fund allows us to tell stories about how gifts to the fund go directly to financial aid, student activities, and robust professional development. It also goes to salaries and overhead, and we can always tell stories about how great our teachers are and how their salaries are our most important budget line item. This rebrand allows us to showcase the amazing work that is being done on our campus and tie it directly back to giving. It allows us to tell stories that resonate with our families, and it moves us away from “give now because it’s that time of year” messaging.
This year, we have chosen not to focus on 100% participation as we have in the past. The most important reason is that we want all of our community to participate in giving as a result of an established culture of giving at our school. If we are successful in communicating why giving is so meaningful and impactful at our school, our community will give. If we are transparent about how the funds are used and how they make an impact, our community will give. If our community understands completely the importance of giving, they will give. If we can successfully reach 100% participation through storytelling, impact-driven messaging, and transparent reporting of how the funds are used, then we can celebrate building and sustaining a culture of giving.

Event-Based Fundraising

Like many schools, Sonoma Academy has hosted an annual gala and auction, longstanding staples of fundraising efforts. And we got our 2020 event in just under the wire—the last Saturday night before our regional stay-at-home orders were issued. These evening events have always been a blast; attendees love a chance to gather, get dressed up, break bread together, and celebrate our school community. But as we look ahead, will that still be the case? Is a gathering for 400-plus people in our pipe-and-drape-covered gym going to be something that we want to focus on in the future? Or does this year provide an opportunity to further define our culture of giving to align with our core values and mission?
As with most events, each year's gala has to outdo the last—in terms of dollars raised—and has to add a little something extra: signature cocktails, live entertainment, lavish live auction lots, and fine cuisine. Given the exponentially increasing costs associated with putting on an event—not just the food and beverages, rentals, entertainment, etc., but also the human capital—are we making as much as we think we are?
And we also realized it’s important to contextualize our gala as a community event in addition to a fundraiser. Our school celebrates the fact that 50% of our students receive robust financial aid packages. That means that roughly half of our families might not be able to afford or feel comfortable at our annual gala. Instead of throwing a fancy fundraising gala, we are turning our focus to meaningful engagement for everyone in our community. In that spirit, we can still have a party, but it could be more inclusive and relaxed—more festival, less gala. Could we have a carnival where the ticket price isn’t a barrier to entry for our full community, where we raise funds, but the spotlight isn’t on those few individuals who can raise the paddle at the five- or even six-figure level? We will test these theories when we can have in-person events. In the meantime, we’ve shifted to nonticketed online events that are about community and connection first, fundraising second.
If we relieve ourselves of the pressure and expense of a big event, we are left with more time and bandwidth to thoughtfully and meaningfully build relationships with our key donors, the individuals who can give a five-, six-, or seven-figure gift. It is through those conversations that we will find the intersections between our donors’ philanthropic goals and the key strategic initiatives of our school—financial aid, endowment, faculty professional development, and experiential education.

Alumni Relations

Our oldest alumni are just starting to send their children to elementary schools. We haven’t been top-of-mind for most of our alumni in many years, and that was never more clear than when we looked at how many alumni give to our fundraising efforts: Only 21 alumni gave in 2019. Giving isn’t the only metric we use to measure alumni engagement, but it is the ultimate goal of all of our alumni engagement efforts.
When the pandemic hit and it was clear that everything would have to be reimagined, we saw a great opportunity to revamp our alumni engagement strategy. In the past, our alumni relations efforts have included alumni induction ceremonies held the day before graduation; head of school meetings with the alumni networks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York; and in-person, on-campus events for our far-flung alumni. But this past year, we needed to find more meaningful ways to engage with our alumni, communicate with them, and even gather with them.
Early on in the pandemic, our advancement department focused on what we want to accomplish with our alumni efforts during this time period. We landed on two simple goals: update our alumni contact information and be relevant to them. With these goals in mind, we identified alumni for whom we needed updated information, and one by one, we reached out to their parents or their high school friends. Slowly but surely, we collected updated contact information and built a more comprehensive alumni database. After three months, hundreds of emails, and more than a few phone calls, we now have accurate contact information for 90% of our alumni. 
To establish greater relevance with our alumni community, since March we’ve hosted more events—a total of 10 virtual events, including an evening of live storytelling with one of our beloved humanities teachers, a virtual 5K race with participants from around the world, an alumni book club, and a virtual art class with our founding visual arts teacher. Alumni have also shared their expertise and their experience on topics ranging from philanthropy to the performing arts, and six alumni even taught their own exploratory elective classes remotely (knitting, creative writing, short screenwriting, meditation, and mindfulness). With the normalization of Zoom and the capacity to host meaningful events online, we will continue many of these things beyond the pandemic. The metric of an engaged alumni base isn’t limited to how many alums come back for our reunion—we now can bring Sonoma Academy to them in many more ways than we ever thought possible.

Philanthropy 101

Everyone has experienced fundraising in one way or another—bake sales, car washes, GoFundMe efforts. It’s a part of everyday life. But they might not know how impactful and transformative this work can be. To help build a greater understanding and lay the foundation for future philanthropic efforts, I taught an elective Philanthropy 101 class this past fall to six sophomores and juniors. My approach was simple: The earlier students learn about the importance of philanthropy and the impact it can have on a community, the better off our world will be. Whether these students volunteer at the local food pantry, get involved with a cause that is meaningful to them, or gain understanding about how nonprofits work, our school community (and their local community, too) will be stronger because of their engagement.
If we can focus on methodically and strategically building a culture of giving, aligning the messages coming out of our advancement office with our school’s mission and core values, we will raise money. And as we make a positive impact on our school’s bottom line, we will be better able to change lives.

Culture Club

Looking for signs that a school has sustainable giving roots? These are the hallmarks of a school that works purposefully to build a strong and vibrant culture of philanthropy.
Excerpted from the Handbook of Philanthropy at Independent Schools, available in the NAIS Bookstore
  1. The head of school and board chair actively support the goals and work of the development office. They also understand the importance of the messages they send.
  2. The full board of trustees supports all annual, capital, and planned giving programs at meaningful levels. They understand the importance of their leadership in creating a culture of philanthropy.
  3. The faculty and staff understand the vital importance of philanthropy. They give to the annual fund at, or very close to, 100%.
  4. New parents are not surprised the first time they’re asked for gifts because they have already been educated about the importance of giving back to the school.
  5. All development programs are supported with schoolwide enthusiasm and high participation.
  6. Donors receive frequent and appropriate thanks.
  7. The school encourages student philanthropy.
  8. Development volunteers receive appropriate training before they conduct solicitations.
  9. Campaigns generate excitement and pride.
  10. The entire school knows and respects development staff members and supports their goals.
Kimberly Eber

Kimberly Eber is advancement director at Sonoma Academy in Sonoma, California.