Insights from independent school advancement teams on the impact of COVID-19

Expert Insight

Insights from independent school advancement teams on the impact of COVID-19

Several months into the COVID-19 crisis, with the close of FY2020 behind them, independent school fundraising leaders are just beginning to see the impact that the deep economic slowdown is having, and could potentially have, on their philanthropic returns. To get a better sense of what they are experiencing, EAB surveyed independent school advancement and development leaders. Thirty-four schools from 15 states gave us insight into their revenue totals, capital campaigns, operations, and strategies for core functions like planning events and reunions. The results generally point to minimal impact for FY2020, with a bigger hit projected for FY2021. And with so much uncertainty due to the direction the pandemic will take over the next several months, planning for engagement is proving to be very challenging. Read on for key takeaways from the survey findings.

Advancement offices will be focused on 3 things for fall 2020

Given projected shortfalls as well as increased costs, meeting, or even exceeding, both donation and participation goals will be top priorities.

Without in-person events, schools will be focused on developing and maintaining virtual connections with donors, both individually and as a community.

Schools will be expanding digital strategies to both share updates, as well as assure current families and alumni of the value the school provides.

Giving was strong for FY2020 but annual fund drops expected by as much as 30% for FY2021

Most schools saw an increase in both the value of new commitments (5.9% on average), and annual fund totals (2.8% on average) for FY2020. While that is good news, most schools are bracing for decreases that could be as big as 75% for new commitments and 30% for the annual fund in FY2021.

Without safe travel, donor visits are in limbo


potential drop in annual fund totals
potential drop in annual fund totals

Unsurprisingly, donor visits dropped on average by 4% over FY2020; some visits fell by as much as 66%. Interestingly, while the overall projection is for a bigger drop (6.5% on average) in visits over this coming year, some schools are projecting an increase—perhaps thinking they will hit the road in overdrive when schools clear fundraisers to safely travel again.

Staffing levels will remain steady, while advancement office budgets may be cut

Most schools anticipate the make-up of advancement offices will not change very much over FY2021, with very few schools anticipating staff reductions. A handful of schools did report pressing pause on hiring and backfilling vacated roles. For schools that will be reassigning staff as a result of changes in advancement work, like travel reductions, they report some staff will now take on responsibilities like updating websites and focusing on stewardship, while MGO’s may take on expanded Annual Fund roles. Some schools are projecting budget cuts (4.9% on average) to operating expenditures for FY2021; some reporting as much as a projected 30% drop.

Most schools moving forward with major donor solicitations


of respondents reported they have not suspended their major gift solicitation efforts
of respondents reported they have not suspended their major gift solicitation efforts

The pandemic doesn’t seem to be slowing down major gift solicitations, with 72% of respondents reporting they have not suspended their efforts. Most schools are actively staying in touch with donors through care and concern calls as well as virtual engagements. Reportedly, some major donors are reluctant to support unrestricted funding right now and as a result, those schools are focused on soliciting support for DEI initiatives and crisis relief funds.

To mitigate anticipated fundraising declines, most schools are focusing on mission

Independent schools know that, now more than ever, effectively communicating the value of their programming and the mission they uphold is critical. In fact, survey respondents overwhelmingly agreed reassuring their communities is a top priority and crucial to their efforts to meet fundraising goals. With many schools administering crisis relief aid, they are tying their mission and the need to help their community to donor support. Some schools are directly asking major donors who have not been financially affected by COVID-19, to contribute specifically to this effort.

For those schools who are planning on fundraising declines, they are already looking at schoolwide budgets and making reductions, including freezing retirement contributions, salary increases, and hiring. Schools are also looking to endowments and rainy day reserves to make up the gap in needed funds.

EAB independent school partners are bracing for an uncertain year that could bring a range of outcomes for fundraising. What is certain, however, is that the pandemic will undoubtedly change some advancement strategies and practices for the foreseeable future. Stay tuned for a follow-up to this data in the summer of 2021.

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