What Are We Actually Raising Money for During This Crisis?

by Barbara Barron • Posted May 12th, 2020

For a few weeks now – sheesh, is it really only weeks? – I’ve been recommending (see: prodding) those of us in advancement to “screw our courage to the sticking place” – a favorite expression of my mom’s – and reach out to our wonderful donors. As you well know, this is no small task during what looks to be the biggest financial meltdown in our lifetime.

I have written extensively about the importance of proactively checking on our communities. I have written about thanking donors for their ongoing and essential support. I have recommended that we be prepared to ask for their help right now, more than ever. I have suggested that, at the very least, we prepare ourselves for the moment when they ask that beautiful question: “How can I help?” We must be prepared with an unequivocal answer. We must be prepared to boldly explain what we really, truly need. And we must be prepared to outline how, with their support, we will meet our financial requirements as an institution. We will survive. And we will thrive.

Many of my client schools have prepared themselves for this moment. If yours hasn’t – that’s okay. Utilizing the feedback we’ve received thus far, I’ve outlined a few prompts below to help you get this critical process started.

As we often do in independent schools, our task is to gather key voices from different perspectives. We must have the benefit of fully understanding the current situation and the pressing issues at play across a broad spectrum of experiences. We must not take a single thing for granted.

So we start with fundamental questions: “What are we actually raising money for during this crisis?” “What does our community need right now, in the midst of an existential moment?” 

I deeply believe that words matter. And that our choice of language can backfire on us if we’re not careful. I believe this question, if phrased incorrectly, can mistakenly showcase what we call a “scarcity mindset.” Which is exactly what it sounds like. We don’t want to sound like we’re in the weeds. Let’s see if we flip it. Ask the question from a place of abundance. Or as the wise Lynn Twist writes in “The Soul of Money, a “sufficiency mindset”: 

If we currently had a Special Purposes Fund that could serve our community and allow us to fully deliver on our school’s mission-specific needs right now, what would that look like?

For one school, it could look like additional financial aid dollars for that family who never needed tuition assistance before but do now. Support that will keep them in our community.

For another, it may be a community relief fund to help a member of the faculty or staff with things like rent or food because a partner has become ill or has lost a job.

Or perhaps a school will decide to expand the Head’s Discretion Fund, so that s/he can quietly lend a hand to a member of the community who is in dire straits.  

Whatever it might look like in your community, you must start by envisioning the ways the fund will make life better and brighter. Gloom and doom does not help anyone. Remember: you have a sufficiency mindset.

The next step to take is to begin to socialize your vision of this fund to the people you know who have been spared – thus far – the most devastating personal and/or economic damage.

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Do these people exist? Of course. The truth is that despite widespread hardship, there are still plenty of people and businesses that are doing fine. I’ve seen estimates of a sudden, unplanned stockpile of savings in some family’s bank accounts – the result of staying home, not dining out, shopping in malls, or going on vacation. Not for everyone, of course. These are now valuable resources in your community. It falls on you, dear reader, to find out where these resources are and then seek to put them to work, for the good of your organization and its people.

I think it’s critical to note here that this type of fundraising – at this sensitive moment – should not, generally, be a community-wide effort. It may become one, eventually. But, for now, this should be a laser-focused major gifts-type endeavor. It’s going to be a small group that you go to for this. Nothing like our wide-ranging, all-in Annual Fund, right? By not drawing a clear line between the two, we risk sounding abhorrently tone-deaf to the real and pressing fears and challenges facing so many of us. 

So, to reflect and summarize. Adopt a sufficiency mindset. Keep your sights set on those who can actually help right now. Ask them. As always, remain centered on the inherent power of your mission. You are the bringer of good news.

If you or someone on your team or Board starts to get cold feet or sweaty palms, don’t get frustrated. Expect this. Come prepared. Here are a couple of wonderful prompts I’m lifting from Brian Saber of “Asking Matters”. He and I were in an engaging town hall together this week and have been sharing our work since. He suggests you ask yourself (or be ready to ask someone else):

Was your mission relevant and important back in January?

Is your school going to be relevant and important to your students and families next year?

When the answer to both questions is, yes, consider this:

If we are not worthy of support today, how can we ensure that we are here to deliver on that mission next year?

Keep your vision big, and your effort targeted. The reward will be the most delicious and meaningful type of stewardship you get to deliver. You can, and will, have a lifesaving impact on the people in our communities we care for and count on. Our teachers. Our staff. Our families.

Wow! I am so in!

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 SpringsPresidio Knolls 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.