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Diversity, equity and inclusion in independent schools: 3 imperatives for advancement teams

October 15, 2020

In the wake of the anti-black police violence our country experienced over the summer and increased demands for racial justice, many independent schools are looking inward at how their policies and practices may contribute to racial inequity.  Many alumni have signaled to schools through social media and other feedback channels, that they experienced racism during their tenure, highlighting the need for honest evaluation of institutional practices, including those related to advancement. While an inclusive school community is critical to student success, many EAB partners have also acknowledged that it is important for ensuring long-term financial sustainability and engaging donors.

Over the past several months, we’ve heard from many advancement offices as they try to grapple with how to develop a more inclusive approach to philanthropy and alumni engagement.  They’ve posed some of the following questions:

  • How can independent schools develop a culture of inclusive philanthropy for all?
  • How can independent schools raise money in support of building an anti-racist institution while some donors may push back and rethink donations?
  • How can independent schools engage with alumni to better understand why they may not participate in annual giving?
  • How can independent schools rethink events, like auctions, to make all parents and guardians feel they have equal access to supporting the school?

In order to tackle these questions and many more, advancement offices will need to honestly evaluate their policies and practices.  We see three imperatives for independent school advancement offices and it will be critical for their faculty and staff to have conversations across these areas if they want to meaningfully move forward.

Determine how fundraising for DEI initiatives fits into priorities

Many schools are looking to raise money to fund efforts aimed at DEI priorities.  One of these priorities might be building anti-racist academic programming. As part of this, schools may need additional funding to hire guest speakers or provide in-depth training for teachers.  Another priority might be ensuring the availability of tuition assistance to recruit and maintain a racially and socio-economically diverse student body.  Several advancement offices have told us that they struggle with how engage their current student and alumni communities in fundraising around these efforts because not all donors see the value.  Schools will need to be clear in their message to their communities how these efforts are a vital part of the school’s mission and that donations enable them to continue.

Embrace alumni sentiment

Whether through social media posts or affinity group feedback, schools are learning that many alumni experienced racism and exclusion while they were students at the school. It is critical for schools to first, understand how different groups of people experience their school, and second, acknowledge the connection between student experiences and engagement after a student graduates.  Alumni relations offices, which are typically part of advancement efforts, should actively engage in ways to better understand how alumni experiences and feelings of non-inclusivity have an impact on volunteering and fundraising.

Rethink fundraising events so everyone feels welcome

Fundraising events at independent schools are generally born out of years of tradition and are often unintentionally exclusive and insensitive to financial barriers to participation.  For example, auctions often exacerbate gaps between higher income families and those receiving tuition assistance by, as one school put it, “celebrating the ability to buy expensive things, and in some cases access for their kids.”

One of the primary questions schools are beginning to wrestle with is “how can we invite more people into the culture of philanthropy, and open doors so that everyone feels like they have equal access, respect, and value?”  Schools acknowledge that this will require a significant mindshift for parents, alumni, and staff alike, as traditional events get replaced by new ones, but since events often signal how a school values its community, this is change that must happen.

EAB is partnering with schools to engage in these conversations, and help schools identify blind spots and opportunities within advancement efforts. Now is the time to embrace this work and take an honest look at traditions in order to move to a future where everyone feels included.

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