Engaging Parents for a Successful Parents Fund

Ryan Carmichael

At the same time, they have increasing expectations to be approached and engaged in meaningful ways, not just asked for money. Parents want to feel like insiders, they want to feel connected, and they want to feel like partners.

Before I dive into this topic, let me tell you about my experience in the field. I served as Director of Parent Giving and Programs at Colby College for the past three years (a mature, well-established parents program bringing in approximately $1 million annually) and recently began a new job with Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (a brand new program).

Even in these two very different settings, the approach to parents is largely the same. There are five essential elements for success: identification of top prospects; early involvement; administrative support; focus on fundraising; and remaining involved as a go-to person (concierge).

Identifying and Cultivating Prospects

Start the process early—as soon as students have accepted. Summer is key research time. Utilize the main sources of information:

  • Information from admissions
  • Matriculation/Information forms
  • Self-identifying parents
  • Recommendations from current parent volunteers or alumni volunteers

The single most important tool for engaging parents and building your Parents Fund is a strong Parents Committee (PC). The PC is the main parent volunteer body which focuses on fundraising and on serving as liaisons between the school and the parent body.

This is the most ideal way to get parents engaged and give them ownership in the success of the school. Once onboard as volunteers, it is much easier to have a conversation about their giving and to push them to maximize their philanthropy. They feel like insiders and know the vision of the school better. Also, people often make their giving priorities based on where they’re involved as a volunteer. The Parents Committee is great in two ways: it strengthens bonds with top parents and also uses those parents to bring in more parents and money.

Get them involved early (summer before first year). Their meetings should be part business but mostly a chance to engage with the leadership of the school so that they feel like insiders and can build confidence in the vision of the school. They may only be just getting to know your school, but their first engagement is as an insider and from the very beginning, they’re hearing the right messages from senior administrators and taking ownership. This access, and the knowledge that comes with this access, keeps them connected to their children and to the future of the school. Remember: the main “perk” of volunteering is that they get early and direct attention from the president/dean/provost.

You can use your leadership positions (chairs, class co-chairs) as a further tool to cultivate and recognize the highest prospects, and they’ll have higher giving expectations. Obviously, the PC becomes the top of your giving pyramid. At Colby, they donated over half the total PF each year. This is the pool you will focus on for leadership/principal gifts.

Establishing an Effective Parents Committee

Here are some helpful guidelines for setting up a PC that will serve as a success fundraising vehicle for your school:

  • The invitation should come from the top, with follow-up from development professionals and chairs
  • Set reasonable expectations for calling—six to ten families, tops
  • Provide a job description
  • Establish clear giving expectations
  • Keep the focus on fundraising, not other subcommittees; there is always a danger in drift

In order for them to learn more about the school and to begin to feel more connected, weekends on campus are important. Typically, the first meeting is during Parents Weekend in the fall. This provides an opportunity for you and administrative staff to meet and get to know your volunteers. You should hold an Officers Meeting, where you can cultivate your co-chairs and have them buy into the PC’s goals and plan.

The highlight of the weekend consists of a New Member Training. Start by conducting a special briefing with the president and/or dean. Have them share their vision for the school and answers questions. This requires a commitment of time on the president’s part, but results in big payoffs by creating allies and partners in success. Then highlight top faculty and energize volunteers through exposure to the intellectual vitality of the school. Include a social element with their student—i.e., a reception with the president/dean, a special lunch or picnic. Most importantly, make them feel like insiders and valued.

I would also advise making the PC as big as you can manage while still making it feel exclusive. At Colby, the PC has grown from 42 when I started to 100 when I left. Yes, this is more time to manage, but the payoffs are huge. You can ask them for more and assume they will give since they’ve signed on with a specific giving expectation.

Parent Receptions

Aside from a vibrant PC, the next most important tool for engaging parents who aren’t on the committee but who are leadership-gift prospects would be to organize parent-specific cultivation events. These should be small receptions, hosted by PC members in their homes, providing another way to make them feel useful in non-fundraising capacity. Often, they pay, saving your budget. Invite all major donor prospects. Important: Make no direct fundraising pitches. Receptions provide a way for parents to meet each other, feel part of an important or exclusive community, meet the president in a small setting or hear faculty and feel more connected with the academics. Most importantly, they hear the messages of the campaign and begin to feel more knowledgeable.

Two other kinds of events that parents can attend/host as a way to feel closer to the school. A send-off reception offers a less formal, more mass-engagement activity held in the summer before school starts again. Invite all incoming students and parents and other returning students/families. The event can be hosted by a PC member or other parent prospects. Again, there is no fundraising; the event creates positive feelings and enables highly rated parents to meet important peers and alumni.

A similar kind of reception, called an admissions yield event, takes place during the weeks that people are making their decisions on where to attend. All accepted students and families should be invited. The idea is similar to send-off receptions, offering parents the opportunity of connecting and getting a glimpse of the community. Volunteer hosts and attendees feel useful and get to share their good feelings about the school, taking ownership in its success.

Other Opportunities

Let me quickly mention other avenues for engagement if you have time and resources (depending on size of your school, these may be taken care of by Student Affairs or Communications departments).

Invite parents to participate on a Welcome Committee, whose responsibilities are outreach to new parents and addressing concerns before the students arrive on campus. The number one reason people turn down a position on the PC is that they don’t want to make solicitation calls. A Welcome Committee enables you to keep them connected as school volunteers, effectively serving as ambassadors to new parents. This move yields benefits on both sides: the volunteer becomes more engaged with the school, and the new parent is welcomed into a friendly community well before receiving a fundraising pitch.

Another excellent means for inspiring parent engagement is parent-specific communications. In the age of Web 2.0 there are many vehicles you can use to maintain quality contact, including E-newsletters, parent magazines (or at least sending parents copy of alumni magazine), and a parent webpage. The more avenues you provide for parents to be informed and engaged, the more connected your parent body will feel to the school as a community.

Those are the key ways we attempt build a strong Parents Fund by engaging and cultivating parents. (Of course, major gift officer and I are also doing one-on-one visits throughout the year for both PF gifts and capital gifts.) The implied message is for you to focus on the top of your giving pyramid. Try for participation level gifts from most, but by focusing on the few who can make a difference with the $1K+ gifts, that will make the difference.

You’ll see that some of these avenues for engagement are not directly related to the Parents Fund, but the relationships that they cultivate are important as parents feel more like partners and not just dollar signs.

And just to reiterate, the success also relies on having the president’s or top administrators’ buy-in and commitment to cultivating parents. They know about the priorities ahead of time and trust his/her leadership. You are also paving the way for their students to become knowledgeable, engaged and supportive alumni. ♦

The following was a presentation given by Ryan Carmichael, Director of the Parents Fund at the Columbia University Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, to the 2008 Annual Conference of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Though presented to college development officers, many of the techniques apply to primary and secondary private schools as well. Ryan can be reached at rc2533@columbia.edu.

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009