How to be a Great School Fundraiser

02.22.11

Spring time in the private schools means fundraising time. This is when parents are supposed to feel very grateful for all the hard work that the school has done, and we are supposed to feel excited about raising money for next year so that our children can continue to be the recipients of an excellent education.

Parents from schools all over Los Angeles are asking businesses they patronize to donate cash, goods and services for silent auctions. I have never been one of those parents. Am I connected? Surely. Do I love my kids’ school? Absolutely. Am I absolutely overjoyed by the huge amount of money that our Spring Silent Auction raises? Without a doubt.

What stops me from asking is not really knowing where to begin. When the kids were little I’d asked a few businesses for donations to the nursery school and the endless rejection was too much for me. I stopped asking.

Every mom knows that Nursery School is just a training ground for elementary school fundraising, which pales in comparison to the fundraising needed for High School. At our K-8 school they aren’t even looking for donations valued at less than $100. How do you walk into a business and say, “I’d like something for our school. Can you make it pricey?”

Thankfully Andrew Swensen is a friend who works as a director of marketing for a nonprofit University, and he’s gotten hit up from everything from local post-proms to galas in Arizona (he’s in Nebraska). He says, “I’d love to support everyone who asks me for something, but my budget reality is that I just can’t.”

Andrew agreed to be interviewed and will share some tips with us about how to be a great fundraiser. I found his responses to be incredibly valuable. Enjoy.

My children’s school is about to have their big fundraiser. The parents have been asked to solicit goods for an auction, what is the best approach? Do I visit a store? Do I email? Call? Mail?

The most important thing is when you ask for donations, no matter what medium you do it in, always make sure that you tell the business what’s in it for them. The second-most important thing is to find the right person to talk to—this is often a manager of some kind.

I’d suggest calling first. Ask whomever answers the phone to transfer you to the who usually makes decisions about sponsoring local events. If they won’t or can’t, see if the person you’re talking to will give you the decision-maker’s email address and direct phone line.

If the decision-maker says no or if isn’t available, don’t give up. A little extra effort will go a long way, and it’s really not that complicated. Just follow this procedure: send an email, follow-up with a phone call (call up to three times if you can’t get ahold of the right person; only leave a message on the third try) and if you have to, stop by. Mail is slow and expensive but it’s a good substitute for email if you don’t have an email address.

Each time you contact a decision-maker, make sure to stress the value for her or him.

What should my snail mail or email look like?

There are no real rules here, the content is key. But make it look professional—so do basic stuff like spell check, proofread, and refrain from using comic sans or other obnoxious fonts in 8 different colors and sizes.

Letters and emails should also be personal, so refrain from blind carbon copying everyone and addressing your email “To Whom it May Concern” (see above about finding the right person to contact).

The content of the letter should have four things, written as succinctly as possible:

1. Who you are, the cause you’re supporting and why you’re writing
2. Why your cause matters (e.g. what the gala does) and why it’s worth supporting
3. What benefits businesses get out of sponsorship
4. Clear, concrete examples of the type of donations you’re looking for, tailored to the business (e.g. ask for a basketball from a sporting goods store)

In my case the school is small with just a few hundred families, how do I get businesses to want to support us?

Relationships. Find out who knows whom. If Tom’s brother owns a restaurant, ask Tom to pitch his brother for a donation. Since you can’t promise businesses that their sponsorship will get them in front of tons of potential customers, it’s important to nurture relationships that already exist and foster new relationships.

Think about the future, too. Make sure to tell the people who attend your event to support your sponsors. Ask them to personally thank sponsors when they shop in sponsor stores. Send sponsors a thank-you card immediately after your event. Then six months later, send an “update letter” with a nice story from your school, letting them know that they made it possible (if you have a list from last year’s sponsors, you can do this at any time).

Also, where ever it’s reasonable, turn your small size into a benefit. For example, since you’re smaller, there won’t be a ton of sponsors meaning that they’re message won’t have to cut through a bunch of clutter. Small size also means that your community is much closer-knit—you talk about businesses that help you out, and you make it a point to support them.

What’s the biggest mistake you see people make?

They only talk about themselves—the history of the event, it’s purpose, all that is fine in telling your story, but you must tell the business what they get out of the deal. The worst is when schools say something overly-dramatic like “without your support, we won’t be able to publish our yearbook” (seriously had that one). It may be true, but it sounds desperate.

Do you have a sample letter or script that you’d share with my readers?

I have lots of bad samples. :) I’d stick with the formula I suggested in #2

What conference will I see you at next? Why?

Likely Big Omaha (http://www.bigomaha.com/ ) if you want to experience Nebraska. It’s nothing like LA or NY, I promise.

I’m going because it’s like SXSW without the skeezy frat-boy pitch-fest feel, leaving the best part—conversation about our changing world and what it means for business and innovation.

Thanks again to Andrew Swenson who can be found blogging at Wordpost.org and tweeting at @Wordpost. I’ve had the incredible pleasure of meeting him at conferences and he consistently gives more than he takes. I might actually solicit a few donations this year, though I’m still terrified.