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School Fundraising Requires 

Year-Round Engagement

Tradition looms large at schools, but doing something only because it was done before isn’t a reason to continue doing it.

By Rob Harrahill

When was the last time you heard from your alumni association? It’s spring and chances are that the last letter or call you had was a donation request around December 31.   

Many organizations embrace a traditional fundraising strategy at the end of the year. Letters are written and sent – email boxes overflow with these pitches – and they are often ignored because they all seem the same.

Statistics show that the overall response rate to these calls for donations is about 2 percent. That’s a lot of effort for a few donations. However, organizations claim success and sigh with relief that the task is done for another year.

How long can a formula of annually beating your donors down until they give continue? Yes, tradition looms large at schools, but doing something only because it was done before isn’t a reason to continue doing it. And it’s definitely not a plan.

Altruist Partners recently asked 25 independent schools in Oregon and Washington about their alumni program – specifically their communications and donor strategy. Here’s what we heard:

1. Sixteen of the 25 don’t have plan to engage their alumni.

2.  Others described three key priorities. A typical list included participating in the Seattle Foundation’s Give Big event in May; an alumni event in the summer; and the annual giving campaign in December.

Keep in mind that these are schools – dedicated to knowledge and developing leaders – and schools have a particularly unique opportunity to engage their alumni throughout the year and tap their remarkable talents. Yet the top-of-mind responses to our survey were more about donations than about engagement.

Here’s the secret behind a strong school fundraising plan: engagement leads to connections and those connections lead to donations.

It’s tried and true. Three years ago, one Seattle-area school formed a running club for its female graduates. They meet weekly for a training run and have entered several 5K and 10K races.  A sub-group is now training for the Seattle Marathon.  Friendships formed and connections made.  Whenever the school reaches out for volunteers this group readily responds.   

The runners even approached the Development Office to ask about helping with the annual campaign. They had done some math: there are 20 regulars in the group, and another 20 fair-weather runners. They each agreed to be responsible for making a personal contact with another 20 alumni.

Math is beautiful. With that personal touch, the school has a potential personal connection with 800 alumni who can now be called on throughout the year to volunteer. Need help with admissions?  Check!  Need help with mentoring students?  Covered!  Need to raise money? No sweat – because now the alumni-school connection has grown much closer.

So here are some of the ingredients for a similar success story:

  • Consider first the interests and needs of your alumni. Many want professional - and personal -connections. Design alumni programming with the alumni in mind.
  • Invest in your alumni.  If your alumni crave connections, create opportunities with key business leaders in your community. They’ll return the thanks with time and financial support.
  • Ask alumni to share their time and talents – everyone wins.
  • When alumni feel connected and valued, they will gladly open their checkbooks, and maybe even ask others to do the same.

Rob Harrahill specializes in enrollment management and increasing philanthropic revenue in the independent school sector. He can be contacted at

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