Strategizing and Planning Advancement Work In Education with Kim Jennings

Recently, I was able to have a conversation with my friend Kim Jennings of Generis, one of our partners here at Vanderbloemen, and I wanted to share with you some of the major takeaways from that conversation. Generis helps churches, schools, and nonprofits by maximizing ministry effectiveness and accelerating generosity through consulting, gift development, and capital campaigns. Kim is a Certified Fundraising Executive and an Advancement Strategist specializing in Christian education. Because of her many years of experience partnering with Christian schools to provide the resources necessary to develop their leaders, she is able to provide important insights into school administration and advancement. 

In our conversation, we discussed these four critical topics:

  1. How development work has changed,
  2. Which changes are expected to persist,
  3. Where to invest your energy this year, and
  4. Signs of successful school development.

Notable changes in development work over the past year and a half

First, there are a few obvious observations to understand as the groundwork. Students are about to enter into their third school year that will have been affected by COVID. Relatedly, their parents and the entire community are also in their third year. Advancement Officers have to work harder to establish and grow relationships with their families because face-to-face time has been reduced or even eliminated. Families who want to feel they’re a part of the community (which, in turn, leads to supporting the school philanthropically) have had very few opportunities to get plugged in. The good news is that constituents are willing to try new things more than ever before. 

Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges we have seen is that it is incredibly difficult to build trust online. Everyone, including Advancement Officers and donors, are trying to establish new relationships over a video screen. This simply isn’t enough for some people to feel heard and comfortable. Through it all, Advancement Officers have begun to see that relationships are central to effective work. In the end, Development is about growing mutual relationships – ones where donors feel excited about the impact they are making in an institution they love, and where the organization receives the support it needs to make the mission possible. COVID exposed bad practices, traditional ideas that should have been retired long ago, and the mistake of heavy dependence on special events to raise money. All of the tactics wielded without a real strategy, all of the rinse-and-repeat plans that get handed down year over year are just not as effective nor meaningful without the in-person relationship as a foundation.. 

Changes that are expected to become standard practice

Because of the pandemic, Advancement Officers and Heads of School / Presidents have a much greater understanding of the fact that the successes of organizations are heavily contingent upon relationships. I believe that we’ll see renewed vigor when it comes to meaningful relationship connections.

COVID also exposed in some schools a lack of basic contingency planning. Clearly, the pandemic was unprecedented and every school across the globe was working to devise unique plans for the unique situation. However, schools that lacked an understanding of relational fundraising had no framework for contingency plans when the gala or golf tournament was shut down. The people who learned how to make up for that, to be creative in making new plans, and to reach out and be relational are the ones who will succeed going forward.

An interesting, and perhaps alarming trend is that staff is turning over even more quickly. Seasoned Advancement Officers who have weathered the storms may be hitting pause on driving change for now, or are retiring. Newer staff generally do not yet have enough training or experience to drive excellence. They are ill-equipped to effect positive change in the relational vs. transactional fundraising model that schools have experienced for so long. We are at a turning point where the fundraising industry (and especially in Christian institutions) needs to reflect upon where we’ve been and design a future based on relationships and respect. At the risk of sounding self-serving, it is truly a time when Christian organizations need to invest in their staff and get them the coaching they need for the Advancement program of the future.

Like I shared in last week’s blog, we need to figure out how we can reflect on our old “best practices” that have stood the test of time, while also innovating for the future. Adapt to current realities, whilst holding onto your institutional heritage.

Advice and encouragement on where to invest your energy this year

In order to flourish this year, Advancement offices need to somewhat brutally prioritize the tasks within their work. It is impossible to get everything done. It’s just a fact. The list is simply too long, and getting everything on it done is just not going to happen. Categorize your tasks, analyze what really worked, decide what truly matters, make a plan, and learn how to walk away from everything else. 

Communication is a perennial issue for organizations and we suggest you choose to spend some time clarifying your message and methods. Ineffective communication happens when you’re saying too much, not being clear, and over-communicating. This doesn’t accomplish anything. Our advice is to do a communication audit, either yourself or with assistance. It is worth the investment in time and resources. Every Advancement Office can always improve their communication flow.

We strongly encourage you to examine your own philosophy and understanding of why fundraising exists and matters. Generosity is Biblical. And by “generosity” we don’t mean only “major gifts.” The key here is that Advancement leaders in Christian organizations need to be grounded in Biblical generosity and ready to communicate from their heart with potential donors about why fundraising matters. God calls all of His people to be involved in making His vision possible through generosity, using the resources He gave each of us. Tuition alone will not move your school forward with its vision. You need to prioritize training your Advancement leaders on the fundamental reason that fundraising is critical in the Christian context, how to do it well, and how to communicate its importance effectively. 

What successful schools are doing when it comes to successful development work

To wrap up our conversation, Kim shared three factors that she sees in Advancement offices that are successfully integrating tradition with flexibility and moving forward successfully. 

1. Have a structured plan that is based in reality. 

Kim relayed that at Generis “we always say that it doesn’t matter how thorough your plan is if it’s too complicated for someone to understand it and follow it.” You need a plan for the school year that is clear, concise, and appropriately targets all constituents. 

2. Focus on cleaning up your messaging. 

This goes back to communication. If your messaging and/or methods are overwhelming your community, consider a communication audit to determine a path forward.

3. Stay in touch, in personal communication with donors.

This is something that requires a plan. You cannot simply send out mass emails and newsletters to all donors all of the time or you risk turning them off or certainly drowning out your focused message. Strategically identify the best communication methods and timing for particular constituent groups. Determine how you are going to maintain a relationship with them, choose a few strategic methods, and enact a simplified plan to have appropriate levels of personal communication with your donors.. 

Advancement work is critical to the furthering of Christian education’s mission. Successful schools will recognize this and invest in it with appropriate compensation levels for those working to advance the mission of their school, a high value for professional development, and, when needed, training and coaching.