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Donors stepped up to help independent schools affected by COVID

Virtual fundraising through the pandemic helped engage international and younger alumni

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When asking for money, James McMillan contends there is a critical point where silence is golden.

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“The biggest thing to teach people about fundraising is that once you make an ask, don’t say a word,” says McMillan, who recently joined St. Margaret’s, an all-girls independent day and boarding school in Victoria, as director of philanthropy. “Let the person you’re asking respond first. There could be a long, pregnant silence, but let it sink in. That’s probably the hardest thing – not saying another word.”

For McMillan, one of the best strategies to bring in major gifts is getting the school’s top people out talking to individuals, one on one. COVID-19 has been particularly hard on boarding schools this past year because of the loss of international students, directly affecting operating budgets.

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“The chair of the board and the head are the two best people you could possibly get to talk to parents, alumni or community leaders about what the school is and what it’s doing,” says McMillan. “Even with a pandemic, people could still meet in the park and go for walks while wearing masks. There’s no arm twisting – just that the school could use their help.”

McMillan says this simple approach worked out extremely well, with a positive response from the St. Margaret’s community. In most cases, people would go home and think about it, and then get back in a few days about what they’d like to do.

“Fundraising is getting people who understand the school talking to other people who like the school and want to help them with what they’re doing,” says McMillan. “It’s having honest conversations about the good things the school does and then listening to how the parents and donors feel. It’s the same for any business.”

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Personal acknowledgement is of the utmost importance, as well as staying in touch regularly to update donors. He emphasizes that it is not about asking for more money, but rather about sharing what good things are happening at the school – their donations at work. While strategies for tax relief will always be a motivator, so is the desire to make a difference in someone’s life.

“Almost every single private school I’ve ever been to believes in helping kids to be there,” says McMillan. “A lot of people understand this is really important and worth investing in. It will always be part of our fundraising to allow kids to come who otherwise couldn’t afford to be here.”

Appleby College, an independent co-educational day and boarding school in Oakville, Ont., is likewise committed to making sure financial need is not a barrier to students. This past year, the school has seen a significant increase in applications for financial support. Currently, approximately 160 of Appleby’s about 800 students, or roughly 20 per cent, receive financial assistance primarily in the form of need-based bursaries.

Jude Alexander, chief advancement officer at Appleby, says the reason a lot of families give is that they believe in what the school is doing as an institution as well as the impact their gifts will have on their own and future students. Founded in 1911, the school has an endowment of US$49 million.

While COVID-19 has had a significant financial impact on the Appleby community, Alexander says their focus has not been so much on large solicitations, but about keeping donors engaged. At the end of last fiscal year, while overall dollars dropped slightly, the number of donors actually increased.

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That aligns with how Canadians in general responded to the pandemic. According to the 2021 Giving Report from Canada Helps, overall giving declined by 10 per cent in 2020, dropping to 2016 levels at the same time that online giving accelerated at record rates. While Canadians give to a diverse range of causes, 23.80 per cent of donors gave to an educational charity last year.

“People wanted to support the school through a very tough time,” says Alexander. “Families that were not impacted by the pandemic economically understood the need to help support the rest of the community. It’s not that we were doing anything special, but we were clear and transparent with the message around need and the community responded.”

Appleby also has an engaged alumni community, including significant donors who have been very generous to the school. In recent years, Alexander says they have paid more attention to re-engaging younger alumni.

“The pandemic has started us moving much of what we do to the virtual world,” says Alexander. “We’ve seen significant growth within our alumni relations portfolio of reconnecting alumni and are finding new ways that would interest the young working professional to bring them back to the table and the school.”

Appleby made it easier for donors to give by launching a U.S. online giving platform for parents and alumni living in the United States. The school recently added a Britain-based giving option enabling donors to get a British tax receipt, as well as adding a third option, Union Pay, for families in China who want to donate to Appleby from their Chinese bank accounts.

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“We’re going to do everything we can to stay connected, particularly with our international communities, continuing to build those relationships and frankly ask for donations if we feel the timing is right,” says Alexander. “For the time being, Zoom is our best friend, not solely from a fundraising perspective, but even from a stewardship side of things.

“Finding ways to be creative and make it as easy as possible for a family to donate is really important for us,” says Alexander. “We tend to get a lot of credit for the work we’ve done, but if it weren’t for the community stepping up, we certainly wouldn’t have seen so much success.”

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