Tips from an expert on how to leverage community relationships to benefit your school
We all know the usual school fundraising tricks: selling merchandise, hosting a special event, applying for grants, or coordinating an auction, a walkathon, or even an old-fashioned bake sale. But how can you get beyond those tactics to build the kind of support — financial and otherwise — that can help make your school truly sustainable?
To help XQ schools — and all schools, for that matter — bolster their fundraising efforts, Emerson Collective’s director of public and private partnerships, Jamie Van Leeuwen, recently gave some invaluable tips, advice, and encouragement to school leaders gathered at XQ Exchange in Washington, D.C.
Here’s what he had to say:
It’s all about relationships, and not just relationships with donors and foundations. School leaders need to create meaningful ties with local businesses, public officials, community leaders, other nonprofits, and other key players in the city. The more they get to know your school, the more they’ll understand the important role your school plays in the lives of local young people. Make your school a part of the community fabric, a source of pride and inspiration.
Here’s a few ways to build relationships with potential partners:
- Meet for coffee or lunch
- Arrange a tour of the school
- Invite them to a school potluck, performance, science fair, or other school event
- Engage on social media
- Generally include them in the school community, and try to participate in their community networks, as well.
It’s not always about money. Partners can provide myriad services to your school and students, such as mentorships, internships, and volunteers, as well as business services such as tech support, marketing and branding, accounting, legal advice, and human resources. If someone has built a successful business, chances are they have great ideas and expertise that could help you run a successful school. And sometimes it’s easier and more efficient for a local business to lend its accounting or marketing teams for a specific project, for example, than give you money to hire consultants for those services.
Plus, he said, it can build good will and strengthen long-term ties with partners.
“If you ask people to be part of the decision-making process,” he said, “it changes the way they invest in you.”
The best way to garner support — financial and otherwise — is by telling a compelling story.
“Every school has a story to tell. Ask yourself, how will you tell yours?” Van Leeuwen said. “If you don’t know your own story, no one’s going to engage with you.”
Figure out what your school stands for, its role within the community, and how it’s changing the lives of young people. Identify how your school differs from other schools, and why it’s worth supporting. Showcase facts and milestones that reflect the important work and accomplishments of your students and staff. And tell that story in as many ways — and as often — as you can.
How do you get your story out there? Van Leuwen had a few suggestions:
- Pitch stories to local media about your students’ and teachers’ achievements and adventures.
- Have an active, ongoing, and dynamic social media strategy that encompasses all the major platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — and targets a wide audience
- Invite people to visit your school and see for themselves the amazing work that’s happening.
- Encourage your partners — businesses, donors, public officials — to share your story, as well. If you’ve created a video, for example, make sure they all have a copy and can share it in their networks.
Students are your school’s best ambassadors.
“Your kids have amazing stories,” he said. “They’ll be the best spokespeople for your school’s success. Find ways to connect kids to the community, so people can see for themselves the great work you and your school are doing. And the kids will benefit, too.”
Here’s what Van Leeuwen suggested:
- Arrange internships with local businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies.
- Match students with adults who can serve as mentors and role models. Some businesses might not be able to accommodate interns, “but everyone will say ‘yes’ to having coffee with a student every now and then,” he said.
- Ask mentors to provide career, college, and academic advice. They can share their wisdom, and hopefully provide valuable letters of recommendation, as well.
- Be resourceful. Setbacks are normal, and shouldn’t mean the end of a fundraising endeavor. If you hit a brick wall, look for other solutions, he said.
“We can sometimes get stuck, but you can still be creative. Ask for advice, talk to smart people, find out all your options,” he said. “People will help you more than you think they will.”