Finding the Good: How the Advancement Appraisal Works

by Barbara Barron | Posted January 13th, 2021

Ever wish you could get a clear-eyed, objective look at your advancement program?  An honest assessment of what’s really working, what’s not, and what to do about it? 

You’re not alone. In fact, most schools would benefit from an outside eye. And it’s what I offer in the form of an Advancement Appraisal. 

An appraisal is “the evaluation of something of value.” That’s what your advancement program is. Or should be!

In short, an Advancement Appraisal is a thorough evaluation of your development program. And what kinds of insights can you expect to gain as the Head of School or the Director of Advancement or a Board Chair from an Advancement Appraisal? Many. I’ll break it down for you. 

Spotlight on what’s working. Let’s start with which processes are working and ought to be amplified? Which practices are not? Where are the wobbly bits? Which things are you doing year after year but are either outdated or simply not getting the desired result?  It could be focusing too heavily on participation and not enough of growing your leadership donors. Maybe it’s relying on generic appeals rather than customizing your asks to be more thoughtful and more compelling.

Tracking long-term growth. Let’s find out if you are raising more money each year? From whom?

The right people in the right place. We’ll also discover if the right people are in the right seats in the department. We’ll explore how well the development, admission, and communication departments and professionals collaborate. How coordinated are your messages and communication strategy? Is the budget being allocated in the areas that bring the greatest return?

The Board. Then there’s the Board. How well is it functioning in its role of securing the resources the school needs? What’s the vetting and onboarding process like for new trustees? Do they fully understand what their role entails? Are they trained, confident, and prepared to be helpful?

Engagement with families. Let’s also investigate how prospective and new families are educated about what it’s like to be engaged with and supportive of the school. Are you telling families stories about the many benefits the school derives from having a supportive community? 

Stewardship. So vitally important: how robust or anemic is the school’s stewardship program?  Are you reporting to donors how you used their gifts? What do donor families feel about giving to your school? Have you ever asked them? 

These are the kinds of areas I examine and from which my recommendations flow. 

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So how do I get all this information for the appraisal? Via a series of interviews with key administrators and volunteers, and a careful review of communication, giving data, and departmental processes. AfterwardsI synthesize the information and insights into a report that details the strengths and weaknesses of the program. This confidential report goes to the Head of School, along with a set of recommendations intended to be shared widely. These recs list specific changes needed to help the school raise more money, and grow more leaders. Because in the end, the fastest and surest way I know to raise more money is to build leadership, in all areas. In our schools we work to build leadership, skill, and confidence in our students in and out of the classroom. Why not approach the raising of money the same way?

There are many occasions when this kind of analysis is particularly helpful. Take, for instance, a client school of mine that was considering embarking on a future capital campaign. As part of the vitally important pre-planning process, my advancement appraisal illuminated where the necessary preparation work lay, well before they stepped into that very public and high stakes effort.

Other examples: when the Head was new to the school and needed to quickly get an understanding of the challenges ahead. And when there was about to be turnover at the top of the advancement program. That Head of School needed my sense of the best way forward, before embarking on an extensive (and expensive) search and hiring effort. 

Often, I am approached for an appraisal because there is a vague sense that the school could and should be raising more money, but no one is certain how. Or sometimes there is a question about the Board and its role in development. Is this vital body ready to engage in the work?  Do they have the confidence or skills to be helpful?

Regardless of the reason I am retained to conduct the appraisal, the result is both strategic and practical. The report tells it like it really is — something a person on the inside is rarely able to do. And the recommendations I develop create a clear plan for moving forward with new energy and focus. We stop doing what isn’t working. And we start, working together, implementing tactics that are proven to raise more money and build a stronger giving community. 

Every school, every organization, has limited resources. Especially now. It is so important to celebrate what’s working and give those efforts more fuel. But we also need to be honest about what’s not getting results so we can begin to make the changes that are going to have a real and lasting impact.

And if you are thinking that we need to do this work in the dark of night, because people might feel threatened, let me assure you that in every one of these appraisals I’ve done, teachers, parents, administrators, and trustees enjoy the conversations and welcome the clarity and direction the process brings. 

The appraisal is ultimately a guide to greater success. For everyone.

Here’s how one client described it: 

“Barbara’s deep knowledge and experience, coupled with her positive energy and enthusiasm, inspire confidence among staff, trustees, and donors, which in turn enables her to gather accurate data and provide specific and actionable recommendations.”

Julie Galles, The Wesley School, North Hollywood CA

Or from Mark Rosenblum, Head of the San Diego French American School:

“We contacted Barbara (who was highly recommended to us) and were able to quickly set up a thorough and much-needed advancement appraisal. Her process was very efficient, the price reasonable, and the results extremely valuable to us. Her turn-around time on the report and her overall availability and professionalism before, during, and after the audit far exceeded expectations. Highly recommended!”

Mark Rosenblum, Head of the San Diego French American School

Thanks to them for these kind words. And to you, for all you’re doing for your fine schools.

About the Author

Barbara Barron is one of the most respected and highly sought-after independent advancement professionals in the country, having worked with dozens of schools in every corner of the United States. She has raised over $20 million for schools where she served as the Director of Development

Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and presenter who currently advises dozens of schools in various capacities. She is considered a thought leader in the world of advancement, with her writing widely shared by professionals in development offices worldwide.

She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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