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Campaign Communications: 7 Steps to Move Beyond the Typical

Even before I meet with schools about campaign messaging I can guess what their fundraising priorities are. I bet you can too.

Scholarship, faculty, facilities. There’s a good reason for that. A school’s ability to meet these three needs drives its success. So how do you engage donors -- many of whom have heard it all before – in the same ol’ same ol’ priorities?

That was the challenge for Germantown Friends School, Turnaround Marketing Communications and me two years ago when the school asked us to develop its campaign communications. During its feasibility study a major donor prospect said the priorities sounded like “the typical independent school stuff.” At this year’s CASE-NAIS conference I had the pleasure of teaming up with Germantown Friends School Director of Development Sally West Williams and Turnaround Marketing Communications Principal Liza Fisher Norman to talk about what we did to move the message beyond the typical. Here’s an excerpt from my part of our session called, “From Basic to Brilliant: Not Your Typical Campaign Communications.”

For Germantown Friends it boiled down to a seven steps that I think can serve as a roadmap for any school.

1. Tap into the Human Need to Be Part of Something Bigger than Oneself
Donors are people who believe in their ability to make a difference. They give to schools because it’s an opportunity to make an impact on an issue they care about. They give to be part of something new, important or unique. They give out of loyalty and pride. All these motives equal a human yearning to be part of something bigger than oneself. Great campaigns tap into that yearning.

2. Find Your North Stars
These are the people who love and support your school and can articulate why. (I usually interview scores of people to understand a school. North Stars are the voices that stand out and tell me what makes this school different from the rest). At Germantown Friends, our guiding voices were the head of school, three donor-parents, one donor-alum, one teacher, and one legendary quote.

3. Ask Your North Stars the Right Questions
Some of my favorites: If this school didn’t exist, why would it need to be founded today? Where are the ambiguities at this school? What difference will it make to the world in 50 years if you’ve gave to this campaign?

4. Name What Sets Your School Apart (and have the proof to back it up)
In listening to Germantown Friends’ North Stars, we identified five distinguishing characteristics:

Germantown Friends . . .

  • Is a “Niche” School
  • Has a Vibrant Culture of Intellectual and Creative Ambition
  • Is a Daring 21st Century Urban School Model
  • Is a “National Treasure”
  • Is a Catalyst of Hope, Interconnection, and Positive Impact

5. Match Your Campaign’s Tone and Approach to School Culture
While campaigns raise money for the same thing, school cultures are vastly different. Is your school culture bold, proud, thrifty, intellectual, entrepreneurial?

In Germantown Friends’ case, we knew we had to balance ambition with the school’s traditional restraint when it comes to fundraising.

6. Make Your School’s Story Your Campaign’s Story
Using your “what sets you apart” messages, translate the typical three-part every-school campaign to a unique and exciting philanthropic call to action. Germantown Friends’ daring, its Quaker values of social action for the good of its community, its sense of equality – that you don’t have to be rich to make a difference and be counted – led me to think about social entrepreneurism and a micro-finance model where the collective energy of many individuals could make a huge impact. The result was an unpacking of the usual three-part campaign into seven projects that together fuel a national treasure.

The Germantown Friends School Voices for the Future Campaign Call to Action:
7 Projects to Change the World

  • Fueling a National Treasure Endowment
  • Extraordinary Teachers Endowment
  • Faculty Innovation Endowment
  • Sustainable Urban Science Center
  • Middle-Income Family Tuition Relief (Later became Access and Affordability Financial Aid Endowment)
  • Community Scholars Program
  • GFS Generations Fund (The emphasis was on all generations participating in the annual fund, particularly young alumni. Later became simply GFS Annual Fund.)

7. Make Your Case Tangible, Doable, Fun
While the campaign message needs to be inspiring and lofty, it also needs to be practical and fun. When I wrote the Germantown Friends case I thought of the leave behind piece as a social entrepreneurism catalog – an approach that seemed fitting for a school whose donors are not ostentatious and have an ethos of bettering the world. The “fun” for this school is the ability to actually make a difference no matter how large or small the gift.

To date, the school has raised sixty-five percent of its goal and donors have accelerated pledges and turned bequests into outright gifts even in challenging times. Sally West Williams told session attendees that when the economy took a nosedive what made all the difference was the fact that the campaign’s priority had moved from typical stuff to the specific magic of Germantown Friends School.

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