Solid Fundraising Strategy and Genuinely Happy Students Spur Campaign Success
November 3, 2009
Dude you got into Flintridge Prep?
That’s awesome man.
So reads the Urban Dictionary entry for the 500-student, 7–12 coed day school in La Canada, CA, and a cooler recommendation could hardly be imagined. “The students who attend this school are all extremely well-rounded,” the online source of all things hip goes on to say. Furthermore, “all the students of Prep are nice,” and admission “is highly selective.” Founded in 1933, Flintridge Preparatory School—its formal name—”has about the smartest students” in the Los Angeles area.
What’s not to like?
Given Prep’s stellar reputation, it’s no surprise that the Anniversary Campaign for Flintridge Prep, which began in FY2004–2005, has been such a smashing success. What might be hard, considering Prep’s stature, is finding excuses not to contribute. But such a nonchalant attitude would underestimate the significant difficulties of raising money in a recession; it would also downplay the challenges facing day schools.
Finally, this blasé approach might even confuse cause and effect. One reason people think so highly of the institution, after all, is because its leadership has learned to do such a good job of communicating Prep’s considerable virtues to the outside world.
And yet the reason Prep’s representatives can speak so persuasively about it is because they are telling the truth. “The appeal we make to our donors sounds authentic,” says headmaster Peter Bachmann, “because it is authentic. We can talk about the rewarding experience young people have at Prep because that’s how they describe it to us. Kids really like their time here. They enjoy their adolescent journey when it takes place at this school, with the extraordinary faculty we have. This is a remarkable testimony because adolescence is difficult for every individual, and it can be especially so in a demanding academic environment like ours.”
Science supports the claim. Yuki Jimbo, director of development, cites surveys of Prep alumni that back up the leaders’ anecdotal observations. “We’ve commissioned research on alumni going back to the Class of 1992 that shows that ninety-four percent of those who graduated are ‘very satisfied’ with their Flintridge experience,” she says. “This validates the impression we get, and that informs the way we talk about that experience when we are communicating with donors and prospective donors.”
Happy Students/Happy Parents
“The secret of successful fundraising, though it sounds paradoxical, might be that happy students breed happy parents,” Jimbo continues. “My own son is happy here, and because he is happy, I am happy. And that means I write my check happily. This school is a great experience for the students, and when they leave and go on with their lives, they find they frequently want to give something back to it. You can’t make unhappy people want to give.”
Although keeping parents happy is essential, that is not all that is involved in successful fundraising. “Tactically, you have to have all the right procedures and processes in place,” Jimbo says. “There are no great secrets or surprises to what we are doing, tactically. Technically, we work hard and we just run a classic, textbook campaign. But once we have everything set up properly, and then we ask these happy people for their contributions, they respond favorably, and the campaign succeeds.”
Prep’s fundraising has succeeded very well in recent years. The school has been working with Marts & Lundy since 1991, during which time it has conducted three separate campaigns in addition to its annual fund. The first raised $5.5 million, the second raised $7 million, and the third campaign, which ended last June, brought in more than $17 million. “Through these special campaigns, at Marts & Lundy’s prompting, we also moved forward with our annual funds,” Bachmann says. “All told, we have raised over thirty million dollars during that period.”
Science, Art and Psychology
During each of those endowment campaigns, Marts & Lundy urged Prep to continue its annual fund drive. “Three times, Marts & Lundy conducted separate feasibility studies on the question, and they were right on all three occasions,” Bachmann recalls. “This speaks well for their science and for their art.” It also speaks well for the firm’s psychological insight: “One reason to keep both campaigns going at the same time,” says John Lewis, Marts & Lundy’s consultant to Flintridge, “is to give people of different income levels the opportunity to participate. People sometimes view the big endowment campaigns as a rich person’s game, and we want people of all backgrounds to feel free to contribute, even if it is only a hundred dollars. People tend to give these smaller amounts to the annual funds, which is one reason we recommend keeping them going during a capital campaign. We emphasized our contention that both the annual fund and the campaign can run simultaneously, and that the annual fund can actually grow—which, with Flintridge, proved to be the case.”
In the early 1990s, only about 25 percent of Prep parents contributed to an annual fund of $160,000. Today, 97 percent give to a $1.1 million annual fund. Bachmann, Jimbo and other school officials attribute this increase to the success with which they have deliberately developed a “gift-giving culture” in the Prep community.
This in itself was a challenge, traceable to a large degree to the fact that Prep is a day school rather than a boarding school. “A student’s attachment to a day school probably isn’t as ‘primal’ as it might be with a boarding school,” Bachmann concedes. “As I know from personal experience, when you spend twenty-four hours a day in the country, in a close association with the same young people, in small classes, dealing very closely with each other and with select faculty, the attachments can be very intense and all-inclusive. When you attend a day school, and you go home at night, your school is not your primary connection. It’s just different, so developing an ethos of contributing to that secondary connection is more difficult. It takes even more systematic effort.” The effort has paid off handsomely. In the early 1990s, only 10 percent of Prep alumni contributed to the school; today, twice that number do so.
The Student Experience
Prep found that it needed to learn “to articulate the needs of the school,” Bachmann says. “There had never been a self-conscious attempt to link the overall student experience with the way we raise funds.” Once school officials, staff and volunteers began to talk about how satisfied students were, and how important financial contributions were to that satisfaction, fundraising became much less difficult.
In fact, fundraisers discovered that talking about the students’ experience, rather than money per se, was enjoyable. “Two words we use to describe the culture of this institution,” Jimbo says, “are kindness and warmth. These are important values here, and they radiate from the top down—from school officials—and from the bottom up: from the students, too. That’s because we keep these values in mind during the admissions process, and applicants who demonstrate insensitivity toward others during their interviews, for example, just don’t get in.”
This is not to suggest that the school lacks competitive fire. It has the “best athletic program in the Los Angeles area,” the Urban Dictionary reports. Lewis says interclass rivalry also plays a part in fundraising. “If the parents of the incoming seventh-graders know that a hundred percent of last year’s parents of seventh-graders gave to the campaign,” he says, “that’s a powerful incentive.”
There is considerable Prep pride, but it is pride in the school’s strong foundational values. “This is an institution that prides itself on the kindness and respect it shows for other members of this community, but also for people who are not part of the Flintridge community at all,” Jimbo says. The school takes pride in the fact that its alumni attend some of the most respected colleges and universities in the country—and that it has been able to meet and exceed its fundraising goals during the country’s worst economic climate of the last several decades.
“Our original goal for the Anniversary Campaign was $15 million, and we closed at over $17 million,” Jimbo says. “We made our goal in 2008, at the absolute lowest point of the recession.”
Even then, she says, donors and prospective donors were determined to give, even if it was difficult for them to do so. “We had people say to us, ‘My portfolio is down, which means I am going to have to focus my giving in ways I have not had to do before this,’ and then they gave to Prep.”
Jimbo’s favorite response, she says, was this: “It’s tough this year, but I am going to give to Prep because it’s at times like this that you remember what’s really important.”