Strong Relationships = Successful Independent School Fundraising

Guest post by Vidya Kagan

The Key to Staying Productive in Hard Times

These are unusual and extraordinary times.  It’s particularly challenging for those of us in fundraising and in schools — we are inherently in the “people” business but due to social distancing and shelter-in-place directives, we are all finding it quite challenging to focus on our people and our relationships.  How do we navigate these uncertain times? How do we continue to remain productive and provide value to our institutions? The answer is — you guessed it — keep our relationships going. Relationships are the core of our business. This is the time to work on relationship-building with the families and volunteers in your school.


Leveraging Technology to Maintain Relationships

Technology is our friend.  I’ll talk about three areas where you can use your skills, knowledge, and iWave to bolster existing relationships and build new relationships:

  • Donations
  • Volunteers
  • Real estate



Being in fundraising, it makes sense that we’re always looking for evidence of philanthropy.  What have our donors and prospects given in the past? To which organizations do they give? Why do they give? I often scour annual reports to learn about donors and their philanthropy.  I read donor stories on school and university websites. I go down the inevitable “rabbit hole” when reading one article which leads to another which leads to another…. you know what I mean. We’ve all been there!  To organize my process, I begin my philanthropy research by going to the “donations” tab in iWave and clicking on the PDF icon next to the donation. Maybe your donor or prospect is on the board of that organization, or maybe they have another significant relationship with the organization like a named fund, physical space or position.  Furthermore, looking at the PDF will undoubtedly surface other names that you recognize, and then you can “connect the dots” and endeavor to build more relationships.



We all know the value of a good volunteer.  

They give of their time and resources, and they are wholeheartedly committed to your school.  Chances are if they’re volunteering for your school, they are probably volunteering for other nonprofits as well.  When I research donors on iWave, I always go to the “foundations” tab to see where my donors and prospects are volunteering.  Perhaps they are a board member of a foundation, serving as the President or Treasurer of the local school’s PTO, or are on the executive committee of a related nonprofit or a high-profile nonprofit. Their volunteer roles will give you insight into their priorities and help you decide if they might be an ideal volunteer for your organization. While you’re in the “foundations” tab, check the foundation’s 990 to see where the foundation makes grants. How much do they give?  To what organizations? How often? Finally, check the list of the foundations’ officers; if your donor is an officer, they are in a strong position to influence grants made by the foundation. Reviewing the officer list may also help you identify others — like grandparents — who could possibly be future donors or volunteers.


Real estate:

This is where your “listening ears” come in handy.  When you’re in meetings with other parents or making casual conversation at an event, listen to what they say, who they know, and what they do in their leisure time. If they are talking about vacationing in Hawaii and making plans with X, Y, and Z families while on vacation, then perhaps all of those families have vacation homes in Hawaii too.  The “real estate” tab in iWave is an ideal place to find a donor’s primary home as well as second and third homes. Adding these real estate holdings to your donor’s research profile will help you get a better overall picture of your donor, their resources, and their capacity.


Moving Forward and Staying Connected

I’ll end where I started:  these are challenging times.  However, with the right mindset, technology, and relationships, we can continue to do our jobs well over the spring and summer and set up our schools for success in the next school year.  Most importantly, prioritize relationships and connections. Personal outreach at this time can have very meaningful and positive effects. Reach out to your donors, ask for their advice, actively listen to them, and thank them for their support. Their voices and messages will keep you happy and sane and will benefit your school for many years to come.

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay positive.  We’re all in this together. And we can succeed.


About the Author: Vidya Kagan is the Director of Data Management and Research at Menlo School, an independent day school in Atherton, CA.  She has been in development for 18 years, specifically in higher education and independent schools. During her 6 years in Harvard Law School’s development office, she was responsible for the annual fund, reunion fundraising, volunteer management, donor relations, and events.  At Noble & Greenough School, she served as the Director of Annual Giving for 3 years and as the Director of Major Gifts & Campaigns for 2 years. Her responsibilities included leadership solicitations, campaign planning, and volunteer management. She joined Menlo School’s development team in 2013 and is responsible for their Salesforce implementation and use, donor research, advancement services operations, grandparents and past parents programs, stewardship, and planned giving. Vidya has presented at many industry conferences and webinars, and has written articles related to data, databases, and research. She has collaborated with iWave, Salesforce, Cloud4Good, CASE-NAIS, AFP, and Women in Development (Boston, MA).

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