Three Reasons to Be Optimistic About Independent School Fundraising in 2021

written by Jessica Browning, Principal & Executive Vice President
originally published in the Feb 10, 2021 SAIS eNewsletter

SAIS (02/10/2021) – It may sound counterintuitive, but we see significant opportunity for independent schools to realize philanthropic growth in 2021, particularly in major gifts. So many independent schools successfully faced the challenge of 2020 and donors took notice. Parents and grandparents first saw talented and passionate educators embrace and implement virtual learning. Then, they watched as their children returned safely to in-person learning, even when other schools remained closed.

Our optimism for a 2021 filled with transformational giving is based on the goodwill we’ve witnessed and these three observations. Advancement and development offices have the potential to capitalize on these trends and use this time of uncertainty to build the solid relationships that will result in financial investment.

Observation #1: Grateful Donors

During the pandemic, many independent schools experienced enrollment increases. Families grew frustrated by the bureaucracy of public schools and the uncertainty around reopening last fall. Many independent schools, in contrast, were quick to respond; they put in place prudent and safe reopening plans and eased anxious parents. These efforts attracted new families and gave existing families a sense of confidence.

Initially, we saw parents and grandparents making big investments in independent schools to provide COVID relief. We still see these big gifts being made today, but the impetus has shifted away from the pandemic. Donors are giving because they care about the sustainability of their favorite causes.

Since the 2008 Great Recession, there has been a consolidation and a new focus on philanthropic support. Donors are giving larger gifts, but they are giving to fewer organizations and institutions. For advancement and development officers, this trend underscores the importance of regular communication (more stewardship, less solicitation). Make sure you are staying top of mind with your parents, grandparents, and alumni so when they make giving decisions, your school is on the list of recipients.

Observation #2: External Factors

Stock market gains over the past few years have left many donors with highly appreciated stock. Rather than pay significant capital gains taxes, donors are motivated to give the stock to a 501(c)(3) organization in return for a deduction and a donation worth the appreciated value of the stock.

Although some pundits have expressed concern for a volatile economic future, recent events suggest further stock market growth. The Chronicle of Philanthropy notes, “Stocks have rallied in response to good news on vaccine development and a close partisan margin in Congress that may stave off major tax-law changes.”

We also expect to see stimulus legislation that continues to encourage philanthropic giving. The 2020 CARES Act, for taxpayers who itemize, increased the charitable cash contribution from 60 percent of adjustable gross income (AGI) limit to 100 percent. Advancement officers can use this information to encourage giving from key donors.

And donors are motivated by more than tax avoidance. The 2018 U.S. Trust Study of the Philanthropic Conversation found that high-net-worth donors are inspired to give by a passion for a cause, to inspire a tradition of family giving, and to encourage giving by the next generation. These motivators give independent schools, particularly those with students who span multiple generations of the same family, an advantage.

Observation #3: Focus on the Future

Like the rest of us, donors to independent schools have pandemic fatigue. They are shifting their focus to the future and actively supporting the causes they care about.

We have seen this forward focus manifest itself in two ways for independent schools. First, we have noticed an increased interest in funding endowments. Donors are interested in the long-term sustainability of schools; they realize endowments can help ensure talented faculty, well-maintained facilities, and a diverse student body for years to come.

Second, we’ve seen the importance of the strategic plan. Donors want to support a school with a vision, but one that has a plan to reach it. If your strategic plan was derailed by the pandemic, that’s okay. But devote attention and energy to getting it back on track immediately. Involve your key constituents (and donors) in the conversation. With their involvement will come confidence, buy-in, and hopefully financial investment.

What’s Ahead for 2021?

We see potential for significant annual and major giving in 2021 because of the good work independent schools did in 2020. Last year, independent schools engaged parents in new and meaningful ways. Through increased email communication, social media posts, parent surveys, or Zoom meetings, schools actively talked to parents. As a result, they built connections and provided certainty at a time filled with much anxiety.

Our advice for 2021 is simple: keep building these meaningful relationships and keep fundraising. In the middle of a pandemic and a world full of uncertainty, this advice may sound tone deaf. But the opposite is true—and will stimulate philanthropy—in 2021.

Donors are craving connection the way we all are. They want reassurance that the future will be bright; your school can and should continue to be part of the solution. As the second semester begins, now is the perfect time to provide parents, grandparents, and alumni with an update. Share the results of your pandemic plan through the first semester. Be transparent about what has worked and what you’ve tweaked based on experiences last fall.

Keep parents and students apprised of your graduation plans, even if they are not yet cemented. Future alumni giving—particularly from graduating classes—will be impacted positively or negatively by your actions today.

Now is also the time to evaluate your calendar year-end giving and make adjustments for the remainder of the school year. Objectively assess what worked and adjust what did not so end-of-the-school-year giving will be strong.

With 2020 in the rearview, donors are craving a semblance of normalcy as much as they are searching for philanthropic investment opportunities tied to future growth. While our instincts may be to pull back and wait until the pandemic ends to resume true fundraising, staying silent is the worst thing an independent school can do right now.

External factors, including a forthcoming stimulus package and a strong stock market, will continue to motivate giving. The good work you have done over the past year has created grateful donors who have confidence in your leadership. Now is the time to capitalize on these indicators and realize significant philanthropic giving.


Written by Jessica Browning, principal and executive vice president of the Winkler Group. Jessica has more than 20 years of fundraising experience. She holds a B.A. from Duke University and an M.B.A. and M.A. from the College of William & Mary.

The generous will prosper: those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.
(Proverbs 11:25)

  • Over $1 Billion Raised
  • Our campaigns achieve 117% of their original goals
  • Our consultants have 200 years of fundraising experience