Advancement as Bridge Building: Notes from CASE-NAIS 2014

Kristin Simonetti (@KMSEditor) is a senior editor for CURRENTS magazine.

“Potential is universal. Opportunity is not.”

Bestselling author and education advocate Wes Moore shared that thought as he concluded his keynote address to open the 44th Annual CASE-NAIS Independent Schools conference. The audience of more than 1,100 hung on each word. Moore had summarized the importance—and responsibilities—of independent school advancement officers. They identify ways to bridge the gap between potential and opportunity and cultivate the generosity of people who can provide resources that make that process possible.

Achieving those tasks when alumni, parents and other benefactors are facing increasing demands on their time and money requires communicators, fundraisers and engagement officers to recalibrate their approaches to the advancement trade. During two days in Orlando, Fla., colleagues and experts shared novel ideas with one another—here are some of the highlights:

Creative cultivation that doesn’t break the bank

Too often “stewardship” is defined by thank you notes, honor rolls of donors and black-tie dinners. But Ronnie Bidder of St. Andrews School (Fla.) and Shelby Lamar, chief advancement officer of Lancaster Country Day School (Pa.), said that stewardship is much broader: it’s whatever makes the donor feel so good they want to give again and again.

Speakers and conference attendees shared examples of effective stewardship methods that don’t require significant time or financial commitments.

  • St. Andrews’ Bidder said that her son was motivated to give when a former principal sent a newspaper clipping about the young man to him with a sticky note attached bearing a handwritten message.
  • One CASE-NAIS attendee tweeted an example of a Tumblr Site from Phillips Exeter Academy (N.H.) on which scans of handwritten notes from grateful students are posted for alumni, parents, and benefactors to read.
  • Donor-centered fundraising evangelist Penelope Burk said that 75 percent of donors she surveyed indicated they’d likely make another gift if they received a short, personal call of thanks from a board member.

How do you give volunteers meaningful jobs without creating more work for you?

An alumni relations professional asked this question during a lively CASE-NAIS breakfast roundtable discussion—and she was greeted with a round of “amens” from her colleagues. Aimee Griffiths of Ursuline Academy (Texas) offered a practical answer: Think of 10 tasks you’d love to have an assistant take off your hands, then delegate those tasks to your board committees.

Other advancement leaders said their institutions have done away with boards in favor of task forces. Elissa Van Deursen of College Preparatory School (Calif.) chooses volunteers for specific skills—a public relations professional for a communications committee, for example. Task forces are convened or disbanded based on strategic goals or needs.

Smarter strategic planning

Representatives of New Jersey’s Newark Academy spoke about revamping their strategic planning process through JAM Sessions—online, moderated discussions that can bring together constituents from across the country and around the world. The web-based platform allows school leaders to draw from a more diverse pool of stakeholders than traditional board-centered, on-campus planning sessions usually attract.

Do you value your donors’ mindpower as much as their spending power? Saint Louis University High School recruits highly capacity alumni, parents and community leaders to join faculty and board representatives early in strategic and campaign planning processes. John Rich, SLUHS’ vice president of advancement, explained that donors who have an ownership stake in the goals of a campaign are more likely to make transformative gifts to support it.

Check out scenes from the 2014 conference on the CASE Flickr Account. Make plans now to attend the 2015 CASE-NAIS Independent School s Conference in New Orleans, La., Jan. 25-27.

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