Reimagining How to Engage Major Donors

Spring 2021

By Anne-Marie Kee, Katie Pezoulas, Shane Smyth

Many independent schools have long relied on a relatively small group of major donors for the majority of their fundraising revenue. Indeed, powerful societal forces—further accelerated by the pandemic—have been driving a trend across the philanthropic sector toward an ever-greater proportion of total donations coming from major gifts. This trend is expected to continue. As a result, it is more important than ever that our schools focus on successfully nurturing the continued support of our established major donors as well as on fostering new major donor relationships.
In the perpetual quest to foster meaningful engagement of leadership donors and catalyze their support in an increasingly competitive philanthropic landscape, schools often recruit major donor prospects to join their boards or standing board committees as a core engagement strategy. While such an approach can certainly be effective with some donors, it can also have drawbacks. Many major donors won’t be interested in devoting their time or energy to ongoing board or committee work. Additionally, putting major donors on boards or standing board committees can give them an unhealthy degree of influence on the decisions that these governance bodies and/or management must make.
At Lakefield College School, a coeducational boarding and day school of 380 students located 90 minutes northeast of Toronto, Canada, we believe that major gift fundraising success is best maximized through tailored engagement approaches that meet the needs of our donors and that focus on relationship-building. We also believe that board effectiveness is best maximized through recruitment that prioritizes relevant skills and experience as opposed to wealth. And to those ends, we asked ourselves this core question: What engagement mechanisms will be most attractive and meaningful for our top donors, will most effectively help shape the path for their philanthropic support, and will minimize the potential drawbacks of board or committee membership described above?
Grappling with this question helped us realize what our leadership donors really want from their engagement with us, as well as what we as an organization really want to achieve. Ultimately, we realized we needed innovative, alternative structures to engage with major donors, and we have embraced three different structures for meaningful engagement—each applicable in different situations and at different stages of the donor development cycle.
Coupled with one-on-one donor engagement, for which there can be no substitute, these structures helped us find the right role for our existing and prospective major donors and helped us become one of the most successful fundraising programs in Canada’s independent school community, despite our small size (we received one of the largest single donations in Canadian independent school history in 2018). And while there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for effective major donor engagement, the structures we implemented, and the success we have had, broaden the possibilities for new models and alternative approaches that schools everywhere can explore.

Foundation Trusteeship Model

As is common among Canadian independent schools, Lakefield’s school and foundation are separate legal entities. In our case, the foundation is responsible for all fundraising initiatives on behalf of the school as well as management of its endowment. Executive leadership of both the school and foundation is vested in a single person (whose title is head of school and foundation) who serves as the key point of alignment between the two entities.
As a result of our initial exploration about effective engagement mechanisms, we created a new governance role: foundation trustee. The foundation already had a board of directors vested with typical responsibilities and decision-making authority, but we added a new, separate group of foundation trustees, which over time has grown to more than 20 people, comprising the majority of our top donors. The foundation trustee role is uniquely focused on major donor engagement and relationship-building; foundation trustees provide us with counsel, advice, and input on strategic matters, but they have no formal decision-making authority other than responsibility for electing the foundation’s slate of directors and appointing the foundation’s auditors. Foundation trustees’ perspectives, of course, carry significant weight irrespective of formal decision-making authority. They exert positive influence, for example, on our governance structures, ensuring that they are functioning effectively.
These foundation trustees meet twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring. The spring meeting has long been the signature feature of foundation trusteeship, consisting of an extended weekend retreat for foundation trustees, their spouses, Lakefield school and foundation board chairs, and management. We also often invite a small number of special guests, sometimes including prospective leadership donors who we want to introduce to the foundation trustee experience. These spring gatherings are hosted by a different foundation trustee each year, usually in a part of the world where the host has a home, with past locations ranging from Provence, France, to the Bahamas to Laguna Beach, California. Each foundation trustee contributes to the cost of the gathering to ensure the school is not saddled with the financial burden, and we recognize individual foundation trustees for sponsoring specific elements of the program.
The spring foundation trustee gatherings typically include a mix of meetings focused on school strategy as well as social events and immersive local sightseeing and cultural activities. The formal business meeting portion of the agenda provides foundation trustees with the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to school leaders’ thinking on pressing strategic questions, engaging trustees in discussion and bringing their thought leadership to bear on the school’s key challenges and opportunities. These meetings help us shape the path for philanthropic support by bringing them into alignment with Lakefield’s strategic direction and top priorities, and building a sense of ownership of those core priorities. Our goal is for them to buy into our strategic vision, to understand the gaps that need to be overcome to realize that vision, and to be motivated to help bridge those gaps through their philanthropic support. We want to instill confidence that our school is strong, that they have the ear of school leadership, and that their contributions are deeply appreciated. We want them to feel good about the part they play in the school’s positive outcomes and confident that their philanthropic investments in our school are being well-stewarded.
The genuine relationships and trust that have been built socially through these gatherings over the years—both among the donors as well as between donors and management—helps create an invaluable chemistry that has catalyzed significant fundraising success. Donors genuinely enjoy being part of this network of like-minded people, bound together through their shared affinity for our school, and they often inspire each other to make substantial fundraising commitments to our priority projects. And in addition to leaving the meetings feeling like they have learned something, these trustees think the gatherings are a judicious and worthwhile use of their most valuable resource: their time.
The fall foundation trustee gatherings are typically a half- or full-day meeting at the school, conducted jointly with our 68 school trustees. The joint school and foundation trustee fall gathering generally involves a mix of business meetings, small group breakout sessions on strategic topics, and opportunities to get outdoors and engage with students on campus. School trustees have authority to approve changes to the school’s mission and values, elect the school’s slate of directors, and appoint the school’s auditors; they also provide valuable advice, counsel, and input on important topics and serve as ambassadors in our broader alumni and parent communities. Some school trustees are intermediate or emerging donors or younger potential future major donors.
The foundation trusteeship model in particular has been a major catalyst of our fundraising success over the past 15 years. Indeed, one important benefit of the foundation trustee role is transparency about its purpose, with members recognizing that the role carries with it an expectation of philanthropic leadership. We raised nearly twice as much money during the five years after we launched the foundation trusteeship model compared to the five years prior. Our small group of foundation trustees will often contribute upwards of two-thirds of our total funds raised in a given year. Foundation trustees have also made leadership commitments to our planned giving program and have offered giving incentives that have driven transformational growth in our alumni donor participation rate.
Nurturing this foundation trusteeship model requires a major investment of school leaders’ time, but we firmly believe that this investment is imperative to our continued success. And this model is, of course, not without its challenges. Although the model has been successful for the past 15 years, a number of its longstanding core members are now getting older, and we’re exploring how the model may need to evolve for the next generation. It may ultimately turn out that the next generation will respond best to a substantially different engagement model, motivating us to reinvent our current approach.

Issue-Specific, Time-Limited Task Forces

Another major donor engagement structure that has proven fruitful at Lakefield is the use of issue-specific, time-limited task forces. These task forces generally focus on one specific topic, such as the potential for a sustainable farming pilot project or a new vision for our health and well-being program.
Task force composition and meeting structure can vary depending on the circumstances. Our task forces have ranged from six to 16 members and have generally included strong strategic thinkers or subject matter experts drawn from our alumni and parent communities, existing or prospective major donors with an interest in the topic, as well as members of the board and management. We often invite external guest speakers to join a particular task force meeting to share best practices and help inspire our vision. We also generally find that five successive two-hour weekly or biweekly meetings is an effective formula, although we have also led successful task forces of longer duration. Typically, a task force’s work will culminate in the development of a series of recommendations that are presented to our school board and management.
We have found such task forces to be an effective engagement structure that helps prime major donor interest in funding the recommendations. Prospective donors enjoy the chance to shape the vision and get excited about the possibilities their philanthropic support could enable.

Head’s Advisory Roundtables

Head’s advisory roundtables bring together five to 15 people for a roundtable discussion with the head of school and foundation about strategic issues facing the school, usually as one-time events. We have typically convened such roundtables over dinner at a restaurant or hosted in the home of one of the participants. Discussions tend to be informal and often cover a broad range of topics of strategic relevance to the school, but they can also focus on one particular topic depending upon the circumstances and the individuals involved.
Roundtables can bring together a group of participants from a common graduation era, friend group, or parent cohort. They can also be organized based on geography, such as a group of alumni or parents in a particular city. Guest lists will generally include a mix of existing major or intermediate-level donors, prospective donors, governance role prospects, subject matter experts, and others who we believe will contribute to the chemistry and thinking of the group. We also commonly include a member of our fundraising team and occasionally other members of our staff who we think will contribute to the particular group or topic.
Head’s advisory roundtables have proven to be an effective engagement mechanism for major donors and are often particularly appropriate for prospects who are relatively early in the cultivation process. Bringing such prospects together with their peers for an informal evening with the head can be a fruitful relationship-building step, to be further nurtured over time. We know of peer schools that have successfully formalized this type of engagement structure into a permanent head’s advisory committee, bringing together top donors on a recurring basis to provide counsel, advice, and input.

A Worthwhile Endeavor

Effective engagement is at the heart of successful major gift fundraising. Indeed, creative engagement structures built fundamentally on what will add the most value for major donors and foster strong relationships can be enormously beneficial in building fundraising momentum.
The engagement structures we’ve been using at Lakefield have helped us offer our donors a range of options for meaningful engagement, allowing each donor to find the place that best suits his or her needs. While a board or board committee role will be the right place for some, such traditional governance roles will not be the best fit for many. And while our model has emerged out of the unique context of the Lakefield school community, the key principles and rationale at its heart are broadly applicable. Given that, for most independent schools, the substantial majority of funds raised will come from a relatively small number of major donors, it makes sense to devote the substantial majority of fundraising time and energy to fostering opportunities for truly meaningful engagement. 

Go Deeper

Check out these fundraising-related resources from NAIS.
In the 2020–2021 NAIS Trendbook, NAIS President Donna Orem shares the outlook for philanthropy, highlighting the impact of tax reform and technology on how and why people give to nonprofits, including independent schools.
Hear from a longtime fundraiser and former school trustee about the important decision points and strategies schools should use to determine the future of their development programs. Check out the NAIS webinar recordingStrategic Fundraising and Financial Implications for Independent Schools: A Discussion with Martin Shell.”
Also be sure to check out section 4 of the NAIS Trustees’ Guide; the NAIS Back-to-School Playbook, which includes a case study on fundraising in uncertain times; and the Independent Ideas blog for posts like “Enrollment Decision-Making Amid COVID-19: 4 Effects to Manage,” by Mark J. Mitchell.
Anne-Marie Kee

Anne-Marie Kee is head of school and foundation at Lakefield College School in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada.

Katie Pezoulas

Katie Pezoulas is director of development at Lakefield College School Foundation. 

Shane Smyth

Shane Smyth is associate head: strategy at Lakefield College School.