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Donations key to providing students financial aid

School officials take new, creative approaches to fundraising

Fundraising is a fact of life for local private schools, in part because many of them give financial aid to a large portion of their students, development officers for those schools say. Technology has brought more data and new ways to connect to the donor base, but many fundamentals of fundraising remain the same.

Christian Jensen, vice president of institutional advancement for Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women in Brighton, says that fundraising remains a “relationship model.”

“No one is going to give $500,000 to Christian Jensen,” he said. “But they are going to give to an organization where they are going to touch lives.”

When Jensen was being recruited to lead fundraising at Our Lady of Mercy, he had a meeting with six students. He says he was impressed by their “poise, polish, confidence, diversity—the things you can’t get a grade in.”

Jensen’s meeting with those students is exactly the type of experience that private schools want to give to donors so they can understand how their giving is going to provide scholarships or otherwise improve the lives of students, Jensen says. Forty percent of Our Lady of Mercy students receive aid.

Eliezer Lehrer, a rabbi and headmaster/executive director of  Ora Academy, a small, private high school for Jewish girls in Rochester, agrees that fundraising is based on building relationships with donors.

However, Lehrer says technology has changed how smaller donations can be solicited.

“What has evolved is how you go about getting those relationships,” he says.

Donors to Ora, which also offers adult religious education, are not interested in just giving to the institution itself, Lehrer says. Technology allows Ora to turn to crowdfunding from a larger community that is interested in supporting Jewish girls’ education by meeting the academy’s specific programming needs like student scholarships.

In recent years, Ora has been able to raise close to $200,000 through crowdfunding. The school is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to sponsor an older student’s education for $27,000, Lehrer says.

“You have to direct the donor of today to a special element of your institution in order to be able to interest the donor,” Lehrer says. “That is done with the advent of social media. You have a common sense of urgency because you only have 24 hours and a doable goal. You create a sense of community. Ultimately, it’s about empowering the girls.”

Melanie Barnas-Simmons, vice president of institutional advancement for Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit, says that technology has also turned fundraising into more of a data-centered business. Keeping track of donors used to be done with index cards kept in shoe boxes, she says. Now she can’t even imagine doing her job without a computer, a database, email and search engines.

There are now software tools to do wealth screening of donors and help provide data on what level of donation it would be appropriate to ask for, Barnas-Simmons says.

Private schools also need to develop opportunities for social networking among alumni, including finding connections for job hunting, Barnas-Simmons says.

Barnas-Simmons says that Catholic schools have needed to increase fundraising because of the decline in the number of Catholics becoming priests and nuns. There are now significant human resource costs because religious teachers are no longer serving, essentially, for free, she says. Tuition now needs to cover operating costs, but 70 percent of Bishop Kearney’s students are receiving financial aid, she adds.

Christina Mancini, the alumni relations and development director at Aquinas Institute of Rochester, says that direct mail for annual fundraising remains an effective fundraising mechanism.

“You would think in a digital age it might not be as popular, but it really is tried and true,” Mancini says.

Phone-athons, however, are no longer effective, she says. People just don’t answer their phones in the era of cellphones and texting, she adds.

Golf tournaments also are becoming less popular, although Aquinas still raises some $50,000 from its event, Mancini says.

One-on-one meetings are essential for soliciting large gift-giving from donors for capital projects and endowment campaigns.

Every student at Aquinas sends thank-you notes to donors, Mancini says. It helps students “understand that they are getting their education from people who have come before them and form a stewardship,” she says.

A handwritten card “is gold,” Lehrer says. “It can’t be virtual.”

Special events remain a keystone for fundraising, but they aren’t the main source of fundraising revenue, Barnas-Simmons says.

“They are friend-raisers as well,” she says, since they create opportunities for donors to hear about the school’s mission.

But donors are less and less interested in transactional donations, like being asked to sponsor a table at an event or pay for a foursome at a golf tournament, Barnas-Simmons says. They prefer a different approach, for instance supporting 24 students at Bishop Kearney who are refugees from Africa.

“You have to get to someone’s heart to get to someone’s wallet,” she says.

Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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