NAIS Jobs-to-Be-Done Research: Why Donors Give to Independent Schools

Spring 2021

By Joseph Corbett

shutterstock_1735535288-Converted-(1).pngElizabeth Chipman discovered her passion for literature and a group of lifelong friends at her independent school. She has a deep sense of connection to her alma mater and an ongoing desire to remain engaged and spread the word about the lasting impacts of the school. And had she known that the school was launching a capital campaign and looking for major donors to help kick it off, she would’ve gladly given $100,000—and made sacrifices to afford it. Chipman (the name has been changed to protect privacy) wanted to be perceived as a leader in the community and to inspire others to give. But Chipman was not asked to give. She was a younger donor and did not register on the school’s list of prospective large donors. She didn’t have the income profile of a typical large donor, but she had the motivation and would have made a cornerstone donation to her school. After hearing about the capital campaign when it was announced publicly, she gave $10,000.
This is, unfortunately, a typical scenario at many schools—a situation that can be avoided. But it requires a fundamental understanding of the school’s donor base. Given the size and nature of many independent school fundraising programs, this work can be challenging.
To help schools with this effort and to better understand the reasons donors give to independent schools, in late 2019 NAIS conducted research with independent school donors, including Chipman, through a series of interviews using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology. During the interviews—conducted with donors of varying demographics, including sex, income, age, race/ethnicity, and location, who donated to a variety of school projects in the range of $100 to more than $100,000—we sought to understand the context that pushed donors to give, along with the outcomes that they were hoping to achieve with their gift. Unlike demographic or persona-based research, JTBD focuses on the progress a person is trying to make given a certain set of circumstances. For example, why does a donor prefer to give to the annual fund over capital improvements? What is their vision for a donation? How do they define impact?
After the interviews, we clustered participants by the shared contexts and outcomes that they hoped to achieve. We then analyzed these clusters to understand what united participants in them and separated them from the other groups. Clustering in this way helps us see patterns and provides data that prevents us from falling into anecdotal traps, like believing donors give simply because they are a parent or trustee. It enables us to see where each donor is coming from personally—ensuring that we don’t miss an extra gift from a trustee or a donation from a community member who does not fit the standard donor profile.
As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts donor salaries and giving patterns, and as schools continue to lean more heavily on a small number of wealthy donors, it has never been more critical for school leaders to understand their donor populations—not just their income levels and family demographics, but the reasons that they give to our schools. The three donor profiles, or Jobs, that emerged from the JTBD research can help schools better align their priorities with donors in their communities.

Job 1

An Opportunity to Give Back

Chipman and other donors in Job 1 have typically had a positive and often long-term experience with the school to which they are giving. The school often had a major impact on the life of the donors or on their family. The donors may have formed a close-knit group of friends from their time at the school. Or the school may have helped them (or a family member) discover a passion or overcome an educational challenge in life.
As a result, donors in Job 1 feel a responsibility to give back to the school. This responsibility does not come from guilt but from the gratitude donors have for the school. For some donors in Job 1, charitable giving can also be a family value or tradition, further instilling in donors a responsibility to give back to institutions that are important to them. In other words, donors are often motivated to give to a school by a meaningful experience and a sense of responsibility to the school.
But what are donors in Job 1 trying to accomplish? The goal might be described as “paying it forward.” The donor might say, “I want to give back in a way that ensures that other children can have the same experience I had at the school.” Donors in Job 1 are not trying to change the fundamental experience the school provides. They donate to preserve or expand access to the school experience for students in the future. For example, they may want to make donations to scholarships and financial aid to ensure that more students can benefit from the school experience.
Some of the most critical insights to understand about donors in this Job is that they:
  • will donate to diverse priorities so long as they help others experience what made the school great for them.
  • are not interested in changing the school's teaching or learning experience. It worked well for them, and they view it as good. 
  • want to express their gratitude and continue feeling connected to a school that often played a pivotal role in their or their family’s life. 

Job 2

A Desire to Improve

Donors in Job 2 see some element of the school experience they think could be improved for students as the important piece of context for giving. Whether it’s a STEM program, a different approach to social-emotional learning, or some other aspect, these donors are motivated by what’s missing from a school’s programming rather than by what’s already there. 
In terms of desired outcomes, donors in Job 2 are seeking to ensure that the school experience changes in the way they think it should. They are often interested in seeing quick changes: The experience needs to be improved, and current students (sometimes including their own children) should be able to benefit from the improvements they are funding. They do not define “impact” as preserving the core experience for students in the future but as changing it for students in the present. Donors are motivated to give by the idea that they can quickly fill the gap in the school’s offerings for current and future students.
It’s critical to understand that donors in this Job:
  • care very much about where their donation will be allocated. They are trying to change the school experience in a specific way, and they want to be sure that their donation will help make the desired change.
  • are generally not interested in unrestricted giving. They are also less willing to give to improve physical infrastructure of the school, unless these improvements change the school program or experience directly.
  • are willing to contribute more in terms of time, effort, and money (budget permitting) to make sure that the school can follow through on the needed improvements.

Job 3

A Duty to Give

Donors in Job 3 have an understanding of the school’s finances. They know that the school relies on giving to help cover expenses. The school in this context might be facing serious challenges related to financial stability, or it may simply need to make up a deficit between operating expenses and revenue.
Donors in this Job value the school and believe that they have the means to help it. Job 3 donors may have had a positive experience with the school in the past and understand that it provides an important service to families in the community. In addition, regardless of their actual income level, donors in this Job perceive that they have the financial means to make a difference to the school.
The result of this context is that donors believe that they have a duty to give back to the school. In contrast to Job 1 donors’ feelings of “responsibility,” Job 3 donors’ sense of duty is associated with guilt rather than gratitude. Donors in Job 3 are conscious that they have the means to help the school’s budget shortfall and feel that it would be a shame if the school didn’t have the resources to continue operating. This guilt they feel has emotional components (they may perceive themselves negatively if they don’t help the school) and social components (they may believe that others will perceive them negatively if they don’t help the school), which “pushes” them to make a gift to the school.
Donors in Job 3 are trying to ensure that the school continues to function in the short term, as defined by its ability to balance revenues with expenses. Ultimately, donors in Job 3 want the school to continue to be able to offer its programming and experience to students. In contrast to Job 1, Job 3 is much more about shoring up the school’s immediate financial situation than about the school’s longevity. Donors in Job 1 would say that they gave to keep the school relevant for years, while donors in Job 3 would say that they gave to keep the school around for the next year.
It’s critical to understand that donors in this Job:
  • are not interested in donating to areas that do not support the school’s short-term viability, such as scholarships or capital campaigns.
  • would feel guilty if they didn’t contribute. They are also concerned that other people will think they’re not doing their part if they do not contribute.

Practical Applications 

Understanding donor motivations can help schools in many ways, from informing marketing and campaign design to guiding one-on-one conversations with donors. This research can help any type of school, from boarding and day to coed or single-sex, seeking to improve its giving efforts. To better understand how to implement this research and inform your school’s giving efforts, it’s critical to understand the two main advancement-related “traps” when it comes to communications and marketing efforts: abstract language and too much focus on campaign features.
Many fundraising-related communications use abstract language—phrases such as “impactful donation,” “invest in education,” or “give back to the community”—without context that explains what these terms mean. We assume that everyone’s understanding of a phrase is the same. In reality, interpretations can be very different and are often informed by the immediate context people find themselves in when preparing to donate. For example, a donor in Job 3 looking at “impactful donation” in a message for the annual fund may read the phrase as money that can help the school cover its expenses directly, ensuring short-term financial stability. A donor in Job 1 may envision the money as supporting scholarships. A message that tries to appeal to everyone can end up meaning nothing.
Similarly, messaging that focuses on school features that the campaign will fund/support often ends up meaning little to donors. It fails to connect a donation to the actual effect it will have on the school. How does a new athletics center with four stories and an indoor pool change the school? Does it help put the school on the map and attract more talented athletes? Does it provide a place for students to build community and learn about the value of teamwork? Without creating messaging campaigns that reflect the specific effects, donors won’t understand the impact they are making with their gift.
Consider this traditional annual fund ad campaign:
This ad tells potential donors that the athletics facility will have impressive features, but to what end? Does the school have an athletics program that is struggling due to outdated facilities? Is this part of a larger initiative to modernize the look and feel of the school? Donors can and will fill in this context on their own, but providing it through your messaging shows donors that you understand (and share) their vision for a gift. This primes donors to care more deeply about your campaign and to engage to make their vision a reality. Instead of approaching messaging in the traditional way, think about the context that would motivate different types of donors to give and the desired outcomes they would have for the school and themselves.
Consider a new version of this appeal for a donor in Job 1:

The message does not make a direct reference to the new athletics facility but instead focuses on generating initial buy-in for the context and impact donors want to have. Donors can give back to an athletics program that helped them learn the value of teamwork and make lasting friendships, thus helping more people experience those things. This message gives donors a clear sense of how their gift will make an impact on the school. Donors who click the link will view the details of the athletics facility through this lens and will understand why funding it should be important to them.
Targeting donors in different Jobs requires thinking about context differently. For donors in Job 2, the athletics center may be an immediate priority because the current athletics facilities are viewed as outdated. Donors in this Job want to ensure that the problems with the old facilities will be fixed. These donors care about getting the work complete so students can benefit now.
In some cases, advancement campaigns will not appeal to donors across all three Jobs. Donors in Job 3 are concerned with the short-term finances of the school and are not looking to give to projects they deem tangential to the school’s operating ability. For this reason, donors in Job 3 would likely not be interested in giving to an athletics facility. Rather than asking for a gift to this campaign, advancement offices may wish to discuss the annual fund in greater detail with these donors.

Reimagining the Future of Fundraising

Implementing Jobs-to-Be-Done research does not have to stop at marketing. Schools can also consider long-term ways to implement this work as the foundation of their fundraising strategy. Aligning your campaign goals and strategies with donor needs is a critical method to improve your results. Consider conducting exploratory interviews before starting campaigns, educating advancement staff about donor JTBD, and more generally, always keeping the “customer” perspective top-of-mind throughout the fundraising process. Are there one or more Jobs that may resonate with a specific campaign goal? Should certain aspects of a campaign be highlighted or minimized for a donor solicitation? How can the campaign theme and outreach methods speak to the needs that donors have for a donation? Asking these questions can help you focus on the donors’ goals and make giving an engaging and exciting experience for years to come. 

New Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many opportunities to use a Jobs-to-Be-Done lens more in advancement efforts.
Design a campaign to establish relief funds for the school community. This could be an extremely effective way to target Job 1 donors. There’s a lot that makes your school great, and it would be terrible if families lost their school community because of the pandemic. Preserving and expanding school access is key here.
Improve the learning experience—online and when students return to campus. Children are struggling with learning loss, creating a Job 2 context for many families in remote learning. Ideas could include bringing on additional teaching staff temporarily, expanding access to school resources, or anything that can help mitigate learning loss or improve learning upon return to school. Campaign or annual fund priorities could be built around this idea.
Share your school’s financial situation in the wake of the pandemic. Being transparent about finances can be the push needed for donors in Job 3. Are there high-priority items your families can help the school fund in the short-term, such as COVID-19 testing? Schools may consider rethinking their annual fund priorities to focus more on short-term solvency.
Joseph Corbett

Joseph Corbett is senior research analyst at NAIS.