by Barbara Barron | Posted August 8th, 2018
True story: someone dear to me recently enrolled her child in a beautiful, well-respected private school.
She’s no slouch. She researched her options carefully. She visited the campus several times. She put her family through a rigorous admission process. And when it became time for her to finally drop him off for his first day, she was never more certain this was the right place for her child. He seemed so happy there. That was all that mattered.
One week into his enrollment, my friend received an e-mail from the school:
I am writing to thank you for two things.
First, for the privilege you have given us to share in the education of your children with you, our parents, as their primary educators.
Second, thank you for your financial support of the mission of ABC School with your gift to our annual fund, The Fund for ABC School.
I ask that you please take a moment this weekend to make your gift to this important effort. Every gift of every amount is valued and appreciated.
To make your gift, click here.
So-and-So, Head of School, etc.”
When my friend finished reading this painfully worded little missive, she actually found herself relieved that this important-looking email was just a generic form letter, and not that something had gone awry with admissions, or – worse – that her child was in already in some kind of trouble.
So she sent it along to me – because she was understandably confused.
After reading it, I admit that I was disappointed. But then I took a couple deep breaths and said, “You know what, Barbara? This is nothing but a learning experience. These people don’t want to be doing things so very, very wrong. They just need a helping hand.”
Because we could all use a helping hand, couldn’t we? The process of onboarding new parents is so regularly mucked up, it’s actually a major issue for many schools.
Next month, I’ll post an article about how to get over ourselves, push through the hesitation, and get busy asking new parents for their support. Today, I want to use this the welcome letter, this very bad, but typical welcome letter as our jumping off point to help us do a much better job with new parents.
So let’s get into it. Let’s talk about five things your Welcome Letter should do.
Your Welcome Letter should actually be from the person doing the welcoming.
In the example above, the e-mail was sent from an address that was not that of the Head of School. In fact, it wasn’t even the name of someone who worked for the school.
This may seem like a small thing – but it’s not. What we’re talking about here are first impressions, and giving new parents at your school a foundation of trust.
Today, receiving an e-mail from a strange e-mail address, supposedly from the school your child attends – that’s not just confusing, it’s alarming. So we shoot ourselves in the foot by ignoring this seemingly innocuous detail.
If your Head did not, in fact, write the Welcome Letter, why pretend s/he did? Even if you do decide that you must use a generic template (ok, but why?!), that’s no excuse. Newsletter programs have evolved enough that you can deliver mail that looks like it came from a trusted source. Use them.
And if you need help, simply ask.
Your Welcome Letter should be personally addressed.
This is table stakes at this point.
There’s simply no excuse for addressing your new parents as “New Parents”. They have names, and those names should be programmed into your system so that you can address them directly. If you don’t have the know-how to do this, or to implement this, find someone who does and ask them to help.
This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway…
You are not doing your job if you are not treating your parents, your donors, as individuals.
There are hundreds of ways to do that, and this, dear reader, is the least time intensive of them all.
So write it down: I am never going to send a mass e-mailer that doesn’t address the most important people I know by their actual names, ever again.
Your Welcome Letter should be as specific as possible
If you re-read the letter from the opening of this article, you might notice some language that creates a bit of a logical conundrum. I’ll single it out, here:
…thank you for your financial support of the mission of ABC School with your gift to our annual fund, The Fund for ABC School.
I ask that you please take a moment this weekend to make your gift to this important effort.
Wow! Is your brain doing a cartwheel to make sense of it? You’re not alone. My friend had the same experience reading it.
We all know what the letter is trying to say: thank you in advance for your financial gift. But what it actually reads instead is “Thank you for your gift” and then, immediately after, “Will you make a gift?”
This is just one example of how tip-toeing around our actual asks, and being afraid of our own philanthropic efforts, we do a great disservice to our new parents. These people deserve clarity, and by ignoring the simple act of proofreading and making sure our wording is logical and concise, we’re only serving up an unhealthy heap of confusion!
Say it with me.
“I will be clear. I will be direct. I will tell the new parents exactly what we want them to know. I will tell them exactly what we’re asking for.”
Feels better already, right? Give yourself permission to do your job.
Your Welcome Letter should be the continuation of a conversation.
…and what is that conversation about? The culture of giving at your school.
This is not a taboo thing to discuss! It’s not a “poorly kept secret!” It’s not some confusing read-between-the-lines operation that new parents need to navigate!
No, no, no. It’s a fact.
Parents at your school give. Full stop. End of sentence. It’s because of this culture of generosity that your school is able to offer the facilities and wonderful teachers and programs that it does.
All that is available to our teachers, staff, and students is made possible because of the culture of giving.
It’s time for us to make a commitment: we’re going to explain to parents at the front end of the process that they will be asked to participate in the fundraising activities of the school. I understand that this can be tricky if you have a siloed structure and the admission folks feel like that’s not their realm…
Well? Open the realm. Bring down the silos. Carefully, respectfully, sure. But the sooner you start that process, the better off your school will be. Yes, it may ruffle some feathers, but your mission is noble, and this may help make the difference between your school soaring or sinking. Which do you choose?
Your Welcome Letter should give new parents some helpful guideposts.
Even if you’ve made philanthropy a natural part of the conversation, odds are pretty good that your new parents are uncertain of what you expect or hope of them. So, help them by clearly setting the terms of your agreement. Say, “We’re proud of the fact that 100% of our parents (if that’s true) make a gift to our Annual Fund each year. We hope you will join them and give what is meaningful to your family.”
Better yet, tell them, by name, who from the advancement office will be following up to answer any questions and seek their support. Personalize.
It shows new parents that acts of philanthropy will be recognized and appreciated.
Help your newest members of the community understand that the school is grateful for every charitable dollar that comes in, and is unafraid to shout its gratitude from the rooftops.
At the end of the day, the welcome letter to new parents is simply one part of transitioning new parents into our communities, isn’t it?
What I want to leave you with is a sense that it is imperative that we handle this transition delicately and with intent. That intent should be clear: we need their support, but we need their partnership even more. This relationship is a two-way street, and if we start off on the wrong foot, the much harder work of rebuilding trust will fall on us entirely. Can any of us afford that?
I’m curious if any of you out there have discovered some good tips for welcome letters, or any kind of systematic changes to your organization that has made new parents feel not only welcome but an integral part of the community they just joined. What’s working?
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 nearly 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 The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal Springs, Sage Ridge 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.