I have always had passion for being part of something that is growing and constantly improving. In fact, that is exactly how the J.F. Smith Group was founded. In 1991, I was asked to speak to the board of trustees of a large Christian school in Birmingham, Alabama, to offer advice with regard to a possible capital campaign. At the end of the meeting, I was asked if I would take the job as the school’s fund-raising counsel.
Since then, the J.F. Smith Group has really carved out a niche in Christian school fund-raising. My belief has always been that Christian schools deserve the same quality fund-raising advice as major universities. We have conducted 100 feasibility studies that have resulted in 82 campaigns in the Christian school market alone. In these campaigns, we have helped clients raise more than $150 million. One reason I believe we are so successful in this market is that our basic philosophy – provide quality service, do more than we are paid to do, and build long lasting relationships with the clients we serve – really hits home with Christian schools.
Oftentimes, Christian schools have a small development “shop.” As a result, they welcome the advice and counsel of fund-raising professionals. Eager ears and open minds often help set the stage for success. For some schools, fund-raising is a way of life. They’ve been doing it so long one way – say through cookie sales or silent auctions – that a new way to raise money proves exciting and worthwhile. Christian schools tend to see fund-raising – in any amount – as a blessing.
On the flip side, both of these points can also be seen as drawbacks. A small development office – or none whatsoever – prevents major fund-raising initiatives. Such a school may have never had a capital campaign, or even an annual fund, and thus the school lacks a strong culture of giving. And, while “fund-raising” may be a way of life in terms of cookie sales or silent auctions, these types of money-making strategies are not going to raise major funds like a capital campaign will.
Over the years, I have witnessed a multitude of positive and negative factors for Christian schools when it comes to fund-raising. Some of the positive points include:
· Christian schools are mission-based with a sincere appreciation and effort to achieve the mission of the school.
· Christian schools show an enthusiasm for the prospect of raising money for the needs and future of the school.
· Christian schools hold a desire to fund the breadth of the school program with an emphasis on academics.
· Christian schools often see ample volunteerism.
· Christian schools usually see frequent, regular participation by the headmaster or president in capital campaign solicitations.
· Christian schools have strong values and a desire to raise money ethically.
· Christian schools typically have a high rate of completed pledge payments (less than a 5% default rate).
Some potential pitfalls in Christian school fund-raising include:
· The lack of a strong headmaster can be detrimental to a campaign. The constituents look to this person to show leadership in a campaign; if that doesn’t happen, it’s hard to get others on board. Leadership donors want to hear from the “decision maker.”
· A lack of board support and/or campaign participation from the faculty and staff can hurt a campaign. If those closest do not participate, why should others?
· Christian schools are often under-funded with a large gap between tuition generated and the cost of operating a school.
· Christian schools will sometimes have unrealistic expectations of the amount of money that can be raised in a capital campaign.
· A dependency on volunteers to raise money is a drawback; Christian schools must be staff-driven to succeed.
· Inadequate development software or no development software in place can hurt the success of fund-raising.
· Incomplete contact information for alumni and grandparents limits the number of prospects for a campaign.
· The board is not always fully aware of its role in advocacy, networking and giving to the school.
· Christian schools are often surprised at costs of effective consultancy and try to undertake the campaign alone; 50% of those schools fail.
· Boards too often focus on the cost of fund-raising and not on the end result.
So how does a Christian school utilize the positives to overcome the negatives? In 21 years, what have I learned it takes for a Christian school to be successful in fund-raising?
· Select fund-raising counsel wisely, and then follow carefully their recommendations.
· Have a well-executed feasibility study with 100+ interviews – the roadmap for a successful capital campaign.
· Continue the school’s annual giving program during the solicitation and pledge payment periods of a capital campaign.
· As necessary, upgrade or install satisfactory development software; well-maintained development information is a must.
· Establish and staff an appropriate development office; provide effective, professional advancement training.
· Be realistic in expectations for the amount of money and time required to raise financial resources for the school.
· Implement professional training of the board’s role in fund-raising for the board and school headmaster or president.
· Maintain a development calendar; be willing to send pledge reminders consistently and continue until pledges are paid.
· As part of a stewardship program, communicate to donors the impact their gifts have had to benefit students and faculty.
“I must honestly say that at the onset we knew absolutely nothing about fund-raising. But, with the help of the J.F. Smith Group, we slowly began to learn. To say that our campaign was a huge success would be an understatement. We would not be in this position without the professional guidance given by the J.F. Smith Group.” – Jerry Williams, Administrator, Providence Academy, Johnson City, TN
Finally, it’s important to remember that fund-raising is all about the people. From the right headmaster to a supportive board to an eager faculty and staff to an excited student body to a capable development office, people give to people.