Danger Ahead: Allowing Want to Drive Academic Fundraising Goals

It’s tempting for a trustee to dream about what could be accomplished with a new science lab, more scholarships, or even a larger endowment. It’s equally tempting to try to erase projected deficits or to fund necessary programs simply by raising fundraising goals. After all, a board member’s role includes being a visionary and ensuring smooth operation.

Ensuring that adequate resources exist to carry out the school’s mission is one of the core responsibilities of a trustee. Boards have an important fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the assets they are governing are well managed so that the school remains financially sustainable. Balancing the needs and wants of an academic institution with the ability to raise funds is one of the most important roles of the trustee and is critical for the long-term health of the school.

“Prudent analysis, not needs and wants, must drive fundraising goals.”

It sounds like common sense, but each year, independent schools and institutions of higher education find themselves in trouble when trustees, development officers, and executive directors fail to heed this simple rule.

Setting Realistic Annual Goals

The board’s development committee should help craft the annual development plan and set fundraising goals that are SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound. Trustees must resist the temptation to fill a funding gap with a higher annual fund goal. Instead, trustees should look at average fundraising accomplishments over the past three to five years as a realistic barometer, discarding outliers from years of exceptional—or exceptionally dismal—results. Board engagement in the development planning process is critical because trustee involvement will be key to achieving fundraising success.

Trustee involvement in fundraising does not end with goal setting. Trustees should ensure that the school invests in sufficient development capacity. Cutting corners on development expenses will create long-term adverse consequences. Boards should budget for, and hire, an experienced executive director and development staff. Trustees also must lead by example by making their own financial investment and helping identify, cultivate, and steward donors.

Setting Capital Goals:  The Essential Campaign Study

A formal campaign study tests the ability to raise funds for a specific purpose such as a new building or an endowed teaching position. Before conducting the study, a draft case for support should be developed that articulates what the school hopes to raise funds for and why. With the case in hand, key constituents should be asked questions to gauge their interest in the project, how important a priority it is, how it fits into the vision for the school’s future, and whether they might be willing to support the project financially.

A sound campaign study is essential to gauge both the school’s capacity to raise funds and its constituents’ willingness to support a given project or program.

“Operating without such an assessment is irresponsible and often leads to fundraising goals that are inappropriate and unattainable.”

It is crucial to query constituents who have the most capacity and propensity to give. Many organizations think it is important to interview primarily political leaders, well-known community business people or key volunteers during a campaign study. Their views may be important, but unless they are intrinsically tied to your educational institution and have the capacity to be lead donors, their involvement in the process will not lead you to an accurate fundraising goal.

After the data is collected and analyzed, you can project a capital campaign goal. Because fundraising is as much science as art, an effective campaign study will help avoid setting goals that are too high or too low. Goals that are too ambitious can lead to unnecessary debt that can cripple a school and hinder its ability to operate. At the same time, goals that are too low fail to maximize a school’s potential and leave realistic projects unfunded.

Celebrate Success:  Plan for the Future

Schools that fundraise well don’t stop once their goals are met. They celebrate their successes and announce to their donors the results of their efforts. They keep their donors informed about the impact their gift has had on the college’s ability to recruit new students, retain exceptional instructors, or provide world-class educational opportunities on expanded campuses. Successful schools and colleges—and the trustees that guide their foundations—always look ahead by accurately anticipating sources of revenue and working to cultivate those sources for future growth.

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