How Can We Raise Money for Debt Reduction and Cash Reserves?

by Barbara Barron | Posted October 10th, 2018

Once upon a time, I was hired to build a major gifts program to reduce debt and build cash reserves.

Exciting, right?

I remember conferring with some professional friends at a conference shortly after I started. “Good luck, Barbara!” one of them said. “That’s what I’d call unsexy money.”

Funny. And kinda true. Building the cash reserves for a school is not the most tantalizing program out there. It’ll always be far sexier to ask for something concrete, right? Something tangible. Like a new state-of-the-art pool. Heck, even refurbishing the seats in the auditorium gives our donors a way to see their gifts at work.

I admit that, at first, I was a little unsure how to proceed. And everyone’s negative reaction didn’t help! And then, well… something changed.

Our development committee had one of those really generative meetings. The kind you prepare for, and hope for and, well, rarely have.

Together, we realized we had to think about this program and its “pitch” very differently. So we flipped the script.

We began to talk about this program as a way to ensure the school’s financial sustainability not only for this generation but for several generations. And we realized we needed to keep this small, selective. Not a public campaign. This major gifts program, by definition, was going to approach the very few families who were already crazy generous. The ones who had the capacity to dig deep and make a transformative gift.

Guess what? We did it. We raised nearly $5 million.

And now, looking back, I believe it was that meeting of the minds where we set the terms and dictated our own internal strategy that paved the way for our success.

I’m sure my genius collaborators won’t mind if I share what we came up with. It all comes down to three simple strategies that all work in tandem.

Strategy #1: Push for urgency

That’s a good looking pool, isn’t it?

See, if I was raising money for a new pool, that’s exactly the kind of picture I would use to help illustrate how essential it is that our school have a pool just like this one. And I might pair it with a deadline like: “We have the coach lined up! We can have a competitive swim team this year! And your child can be on it!”

But how can you have the same sense of urgency for something like debt?

It’s talking about the things that you won’t have until the debt and the reserves are handled. Tangible things. Real things. Things that the donor wants the school to have, but simply aren’t possible until we get through the current campaign.

The thing that must be done first, before you can even think about the fun stuff down the road.

This creates that vital sense of urgency. You’ve set the terms and now it’s a matter of whether and how they can pitch in.

Strategy #2: Make every contribution feel permanent

Wow! What a snazzy looking auditorium. (We can’t wait to get through this debt relief campaign so we can start talking about that… right?)

You’ll notice I’m pushing very hard on the idea of the tangible. The permanent.

That’s because we all know that the process of giving is so much more rewarding for our donors when they can see, or experience, the results of their gifts. This is just basic human psychology, here. And it plays perfectly into my point.

Putting money towards a cash reserve may seem like dropping coins into a sea of coins. Your job is to show how it’s actually the opposite. Gifts made today expand as time goes by. They make future dreams come true. Even dreams not yet dreamed!

Instead of talking about adding to a “reserve”, we talked about future generations. Real resources like faculty salaries, tuition assistance, programs, facilities. That’s the beautiful thing about a cash reserve: it is future money. It’s for the kids, but it’s also for the grandkids and the great-grandkids.

See how appealing today’s gift now becomes, when it’s put in this new context? Who wouldn’t want to provide a wonderful education for kids who aren’t even born yet?

Strategy #3: Choose your words carefully

You already choose your words carefully every day, don’t you? There’s no reason why you should act any differently here. Here’s the point: we should never not tell people what we’re raising money for. We all know there’s no space in our profession for being duplicitous or manipulative. We’re truth tellers. And stewards of our donors’ gifts.

It takes a bit of thoughtful wordsmithing to find and tell the story that helps the donor see a future that’s stronger and better than the one you are currently facing. And, here’s the key: tell it without creating a toxic sense of doom or despair. (Challenging but not impossible.)

Wrap it in what’s already working, and what wants to be even better. Showcase moments in the classroom or science lab or sound studio where students and their teachers are on fire! “Don’t you want this to continue? Of course, you do! Well, we can only ensure that it will with cash reserves. It’s as permanent as permanent gets.”

At the end of the day, your donors want to give. They want to help! They just need our assistance in making sure that their gift is going towards the real, the important, the valuable.

And when that new tennis court comes in, you better invite them out to a match, right? After all, they helped make it a reality.

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 WatkinsonCheshire AcademyDrew School, 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.