The Annual Fund Major Gift: Is It Elementary?

Independent elementary schools typically raise less in annual giving than their secondary-school counterparts. While participation for most constituent groups is superior at the elementary school level (with alums and alumni/ae parents being the big exceptions), the gifts tend to be smaller — and not insignificantly so.

National Association of Independent Schools Vice President for Online Services Hilary LaMonte shared the data illustrated below at the 2014 CASE/NAIS Annual Conference in mid-January.

ElementaryDevelopment-CASE-NAIS2014 1-20-14 one slidepptx

Elementary and Secondary School Median Annual Giving By Constituent Group (Source: NAIS 2013 Fall Survey)

The conference session was “Elementary Schools by the Numbers.” Matthew Gould of Community School (MO) and I joined Hilary to explore this and related data with our audience and to engage them in discussion about the implications.

Why is the median gift for independent school trustees at the secondary level $7,906 while the median gift at the elementary school level is $2,976 — approximately half its size? Ditto for the median gift for current parents: $1,431 for secondary schools compared to $871 for elementary schools?

We can surmise that the average size of secondary schools is somewhat larger than elementary schools, and it would be interesting to look at the data with a control for enrollment. Having now placed that variable on the table, is it possible that it fully explains the phenomenon? We — and our colleagues in the conference session — had some other ideas.

We noted that Board and parent bodies differ to some extent in these two environments, with the secondary school having the edge in recruiting trustees and engaging parents at a later point in their careers and, therefore, earning trajectory.

Secondary schools often inherit parents from an elementary school that has done the work of educating them about the need for an Annual Fund, the gap between cost per student and tuition, and the benefits of giving. Matthew jokingly commented that it has occurred to him that the secondary schools might consider sharing the goods with their sending schools by passing along a finder’s fee!

We’d guess that elementary schools tend to have smaller staffs and smaller budgets than their secondary school cousins. Often, the elementary school development officer has a multi-faceted role, including publications, public relations, and/or liaison to the parent association — less common in secondary schools. There may be a case for further Board education about the benefit of investing funds in advancement efforts.

The most profound point we discussed, I think, was the differences in the sophistication of the development effort regarding major gifts. Based on our sample of about 60 development officers with us on that afternoon, elementary schools are not typically embracing a face-to-face, name-a-number solicitation for their largest annual giving prospects. Volunteer discomfort with this approach was one explanation offered, with a participant commenting that 80% of her volunteers would quit if asked to name an amount in a conversation with a donor prospect. We talked about how to leverage the 20% in the balance — assigning them to the most promising prospective benefactors and asking them to serve as model and mentor to others in order to increase comfort with this approach. Several folks gave examples of creating “the ask” in the form of a letter from the development office, head of school, or board member, so that the volunteer’s role is simply to follow-up with a personal contact.

It was heartening to hear conference participants encouraging and offering resources to each other. I hope this post extends the conversation.

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