Understanding Advancement

Understanding Advancement

From The Yield, Spring 2015 

The most successful schools understand the lifetime value of the customer—from the first inquiry of a prospective family to the planned gift of a proud alumnus.

Kathleen Hanson joined Marts & Lundy in 2008 and currently serves as the leader of the Practice Group. Prior to joining the firm full time, Kathy was Assistant Head/Vice President for Advancement & External Affairs at Baylor School (TN). Prior to Baylor School, Kathy served as Director of Institutional Advancement at The Fessenden School (MA), a day/boarding school serving 550 boys, from 1994-1999. She was responsible for all development functions, including a two-year, $8 million building fund.

For those readers who are new to independent schools, what is advancement and how is it typically structured in independent schools? 

“Advancement” is advancing the mission by coalescing the interest and support of the entire school community. Advancement professionals are often referred to as the “educators of the adults” in the community because they promote a culture of philanthropy throughout the school. 

School advancement is structured in different ways, often depending upon the maturity of the program. Some schools include enrollment management, development, alumni relations, parent relations, communications, and marketing under a vice president for advancement, with directors leading the various disciplines. More typically, advancement includes development, alumni relations, communications, marketing, and often parent relations, with enrollment management remaining as a separate department. In some cases, marketing resides with enrollment management. In the past several years, we have witnessed a shift concerning directors of strategic communications, who are responsible for marketing and report directly to the head of school. 

Advancement is funded through operations—except for campaign initiatives, which generally have a separate budget. Regardless of the structure, the most successful schools have a head of school who expects that the directors of enrollment management, advancement, and communications will collaborate around mission, strategy, and message. 

Alumni relations and alumni referrals are extremely important to any school. Should the alumni office be involved in crafting legacy admission policies?

Legacy admission policies are profoundly important to the school. They should be driven by mission and, ideally, crafted jointly by admission, alumni relations, and the alumni association to take advantage of the best thinking of those folks closest to the issue. While joint thinking does occur in some schools, we typically see the crafting of alumni admission policies occurring in admission, with alumni relations and the alumni association assisting in the communication of the policies. Lead time on any changes to these policies is very important, and many schools will announce changes up to three years before they are implemented. 

As for alumni giving, is there a “good” percentage that denotes a healthy school? 

Strong alumni support reflects the strength of the advancement/alumni office and its ability to create a lifetime relationship with alumni. There are many alumni who want to be part of sustaining their school and, in doing so, preserving (and sometimes enhancing) the integrity of their diplomas. While the amount given by alumni remains strong in most schools, the percentage of alumni giving has been dropping over the past two decades. According to NAIS, the median alumni participation in annual funds last year was 9.3%. Alumni giving in boarding schools is generally higher than in most day schools, although some day schools are extremely successful in this area. 

There is a need for metrics on how we judge engagement beyond giving, and there is a need for us to understand the motivation of alumni who support their schools consistently. We are seeing greater collaboration in alumni programming, between alumni relations and academic sides of the school, and we are seeing growth in affinity groups with school support. 

Marts & Lundy recently published a report concerning giving behaviors of international families. What is your most significant finding and consequent recommendation to schools?

International families are philanthropic. They are as interested in the care and support their child receives as domestic families and want to be engaged in meaningful ways. Communications from residential life leaders, international student directors, and advisors are extremely important to an international family, and their satisfaction with their child’s whole experience directly influences their giving. It is vitally important for schools to understand that this is not a program that will have a quick return on investment; rather, it is a program that must have a long-term strategic view that includes yearly international travel, attending to the needs of long-distance families, and maintaining contact with alumni. 

Based on your work at the college/university level, are there any trends that we will soon see in independent schools? 

Universities are slowly but increasingly adopting a “current use giving program” model to target and solicit large restricted annual gifts that provide budget relief. Most universities also have at least one staff person serving as a major gifts officer, while many schools also have well-staffed major gift programs; these programs are highly effective, with strong metrics to gauge progress. Also trending is the use of sophisticated analytics for strategic decisions concerning staffing, program, and the size and structure of major fundraising efforts. 

Many universities have planned giving programs that operate at the highest level of industry standards. The conversations occurring there are focused on the fact that the financial needs, expectations, and interests of the 75-year-old planned gift donor differs considerably from the needs, interests, and expectations of the 45- to 50-year-old planned gift donor—the group that is now forming the new donor prospect pool. Where each group’s actual wealth lies is different and important to strategy development. These conversations are trickling down to independent schools. 

Are there any shifts in independent school advancement activity and/or thinking that you have seen in recent years?

One of the most sweeping shifts we have seen is the use of stronger analytics to inform strategy in all areas. In terms of philanthropy, many schools have recognized that the needs and interests of the donor are every bit as important as the needs of the school. There is more donor-centric fundraising in independent schools today. 

The most successful schools understand the lifetime value of the customer—from the first inquiry of a prospective family to the planned gift of a proud alumnus. A family has many relationships with school personnel as it makes its way through the process of admission to enrollment, through the lower school to the middle school, through athletics and the arts, and eventually to alumnus/alumna who will refer others to the school and engage with the school. We have to be mindful of these transitions, and we have to recognize the importance of each family and each child. This requires a knowledge of the family’s needs, clear messages to the family that it can trust that the school has the best interests of students in clear view, and true collaboration among our senior leadership teams. Never has senior leadership been as important as it is today. The head of school can’t do it all—it’s just too complicated. 

What are three things all advancement professionals want colleagues in admission to know? 

First, we are on the same team, with the same goal of building a strong culture and brand through effective decision making. We can help each other. Second, it is our joint responsibility and essential service to help all independent school families—particularly first-generation families—embrace the role of philanthropy in our schools. Third, we don’t want to admit a student who does not have a chance to flourish any more than you do, even if the parent is highly philanthropic, because in the long term it rarely works out. We all want what is best for the kids.


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