Why Participation is Not Worth Fighting For

by Barbara Barron | Posted September 6th, 2023 | Subscribe to this newsletter

Years ago, my team and I set out to put the then-popular 80/20 rule into practice.

I posed this challenge: since 80% of our support comes from 20% of our donors, should we not deploy 80% of our time, resources, energy, and love on that loyal, generous group? I urged us to budget for it, schedule for it, and plan our days around it. We were a small but mighty team, and we went for it.

And we failed. Spectacularly. (This was before anyone thought about important issues of equity and inclusion.)

Regardless, it was much harder than we imagined. Impossible in fact. There were always simply too many things we needed to do and too many competing mandates to serve to make that goal a reality. Development offices often function as the de facto special events office. Or they are asked to help with student activities or at admission events. (Those I approve of!)

It was simply not realistic.  

Plus, the world of independent schools and the communities we strive to create and maintain simply can’t allow for that kind of elitist activity. And that’s good. And right.

But what about that still-small group of supporters who make it all work? The top 20%? How can we be sure that we are serving them — along with everyone else in our community? And what do we do about the near-constant push from well-meaning leaders of all levels of experience for us to increase participation? From all constituencies, including alumni?

It is a competing mandate, I would argue.

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You might ask, why not work to get more alums to support our fine schools? I used to think that as well. My earliest awakening to the possibility that this might not be the best strategy occurred when I really tried to understand why so few alumni support their alma mater. I know there are schools that boast alumni support in the teens or low twenty percent of all dollars given. Good for them. Most of those are boarding schools that graduate high schoolers. But even those with “high” percentages are ceaselessly striving to up their numbers. And beating themselves up for low participation stats. Never mind schools that end in 5th, 6th or 8th grade…

It’s widely accepted that we tend to support the place we were last. So, for most, that is their college, then their high school, and then, maybe, maybe an extraordinary elementary school.

If we accept this premise, why then do we press development pros to fight against the tide? Or rather, why do our leaders continue to think this very long ball is a top priority?

How “worth it” is it to have a member of your team work all year to maybe raise $1000 from 200 alums? 

Cost per dollar, anyone?

The hard fact is that there is always going to be a portion of our people who will never support our schools. They or their child may have had a fabulous, life-changing student experience, but they simply aren’t going to give. The end. And as frustrating as that is to accept, accept it, we must. Not saying you can’t keep asking them but do it inexpensively and for heaven’s sake, don’t spend precious resources, particularly human resources, begging people to give when it likely just annoys them.

Let’s stop chasing participation, which is the wrong metric, and instead focus on the people who care.

How? By getting to know those who keep showing up. Our hardworking volunteers. Our Board members, Our generous and loyal parents and alumni parents. Our newest families who are eager to engage. Let’s organize our efforts to spend more time with them, learning what they care about, sharing stories about their gifts in action. Holding onto donors and growing their support is a far better and more rewarding use of our time than chasing those who aren’t interested.

It’s always going to be somewhat of a compromise, right?  If we’re not going to die on the participation hill and we can’t focus exclusively on only top donors, we need to find a balance. But as someone told me very early in my career, if you raise more money, people will trust you and stop asking you to focus on the wrong things. Or not bug you too much about it, anyway!

Your job is to stay clear on what matters and do that. Trust me on this. And trust yourself.

Here’s to you and all you’re doing.

Barbara Barron
[email protected]

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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.

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