How Do We Get a 100% Return On Our Annual Fund Appeal Letters?

by Barbara Barron | Posted August 14th, 2019

True success story: a client reported back to me on a pretty far out-there strategy we had developed last summer for their Annual Fund approach to returning parents.

Would you believe me if I told you that she is seeing almost 100% return?

That nearly every family is increasing its giving substantially, stretching (in some cases) to reach the new, elevated giving level?

That she is receiving thank you notes from families for the extraordinary letter she sent them asking for a gift?!

All true. Promise. So, what did we do?

First, the issue.

Here’s where we started:

The Chief Development Officer at this fine school – let’s call her Anna – called me to help her develop a strategy for making better use of her staff and creating more valuable team meetings.

Over time, our conversations focused on issues and opportunities with the Board, and how to tackle untapped potential she saw in a portion of their parent body.

Anna reported to me about a group of returning families that she sensed could and would give a lot more if she could find the right approach. They’d entered the school and made nice first gifts. “How do we thank them and inspire them to give more?”

Simultaneously, Anna had that nagging knowing that they needed to increase their giving levels to raise sights on what leadership really meant there. She was right.

This is a very well resourced, respected school, with many, many families of means. But the lesson is good one no matter how wealthy – or not – your school community.

We landed on the idea of leading with gratitude.

What is “leading with gratitude”?

It’s pretty simple, actually.

Anna would thank families for their first gift and express how grateful the school was for their early leadership. It’s an act of faith to start supporting a new school, right from the jump, before you see the real impact the program and the teachers will have on your child.

That’s worth calling out. And thanking.

The next part was the more far-out piece. And when we first discussed it, I could see the ambiguity in her eyes. She was going to have to really go for it. So, she did. She went deep. (That’s how she rolls.)

Here’s what she did:

She wrote a completely original section for each and every letter.

Re-read that sentence. No template. No form letter with a little “note” jotted on the bottom that simply screams to the reader that this is a form letter we didn’t have the heart to send without a little personalized scribble. Ick.

She invested an enormous number of hours to offer something real and fresh. She got out of her office and found every one of the students whose parents were in that group. She watched each student in action. She found them on the athletic fields. She watched them perform experiments in the physics lab. She listened in on their advisory groups.

She went there. And she observed.

In the end, she was able to report with complete authenticity what she had witnessed: her donor’s children engaged in life and learning at this school.

The beauty of this idea is that parents, particularly those of high school students, are appropriately less involved in the daily lives of their kids. It’s natural. But that doesn’t mean parents  — all parents — aren’t still eager, even hungry, to know more about what goes on in their child’s day.

So she provided a window to moments these parents would otherwise never have been privy to. It was intimate and real.

And the parents absolutely loved it.

The payoff.

Did this project take a huge commitment of Anna’s time? Yep.

Did she curse the project (and maybe me) midway through, when she still had another 20 letters to write and it was a Tuesday night or a Sunday afternoon? Probably. 

Did she take a leap of faith that all this time and love and energy (and investigation) would be worth it? She did.

And that’s why she’s my heroine.

Then the gifts started coming in. And the cards. And the emails. All thanking Anna for the “beautiful” letter she’d written. She was thrilled. What affirmation!

Turns out, the right thing, the careful, loving, intentional, often time-consuming, and the harder thing is also… the smart thing.

After all, parents send their children to our schools precisely because we promise to really see them, to know them. What better evidence is there of that promise kept than by actually doing it?

And now, my client has a more legitimate, authentic relationship with these families than she did before. It’s up to her now to make sure those gifts are properly thanked and stewarded, and to work to keep that trust alive and well.

I have no doubt that she will.

And now, it’s up to you.

Let’s be realists: doing this work will require that you reorganize your day. Or several days. Or months.

It’s often said that we in independent schools are excellent at addition, and terrible at subtraction. We love innovation and the next great idea. But we tend to forget that we will need to remove something from our plates to make space (intellectually and emotionally as well as practically) to take on something new.

So here’s the first step.

Find that thing that can wait, or be eliminated, and instead pour yourself into something more worthwhile. Maybe the way to move the needle at your school is simply to do more of what you do so well: connect genuinely with your parents. Maybe what it takes is to be the change you wish to see.

Will it be difficult? Absolutely.

Will the payoff be extraordinary? You better believe it.

I mean, can you imagine the moment you tell your head of school you actually got 100% return on your annual fund letter? Can you even comprehend what that conversation would look like?

You better start.

As always, I’d love to hear what you’re choosing to do differently at your school. Shoot me an email.

Let’s keep learning and improving together!

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at Drew SchoolCrystal SpringsMarin Primary & Middle School, Julia Morgan School for Girls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.