How to Motivate Your School Community to Give

December 8, 2015 Marc A. Pitman

Wouldn’t it be great to find a magic way to motivate your school community to give donations? Then we could simply go about the important work of educating kids and not have to worry about the funding, right?

While a “magic” solution still hasn’t been found, there is a way that is pretty darn close. And here at the end of the calendar year is a great reminder: to motivate your school community to give you need to speak their dialect, not yours.

Talking their dialect, not your school’s

How does December fit with communicating with donors and prospects? For most of our schools, December is simply another month on the calendar. Our real year-end is in June. That’s when classes end and when the fiscal year ends.

But donors don’t tend to live on our fiscal, July to June calendar. They tend to live by the calendar you can see hanging at any barber shop: the January to December one.

And this is December. The end of their calendar. As a result, many organizations including schools see 30% – 40% of their fundraising goals come in this month.

What if schools simply ignored this month, saving up all their end-of-year fundraising until June? That’s the month that matters to schools, isn’t it? Chances are, their fundraising would fail miserably. Instead, schools work in conjunction with something that donors find important – the end of the calendar year – and find fundraising success.

Talking the native dialect

But schools aren’t this consistent at being donor focused. They often fall in love with the words of their mission and vision at the expense of communicating with others. An example is an independent pre-school that talks to donors about the importance of “literacy.” The school staff has a perfectly clear understanding of what that word means so uses it in all their fundraising.

But studies show “literacy” has at least a dozen different interpretations. Some people think it means reading and writing, others mean math. Some thinks it means a person has the ability to learn. Shockingly, others think that “literate” means people can’t read or write!

In all my years of fundraising, I’ve met only a few parents or alumni interested in literacy. But every single one of them are passionate about their kids being able to read and write. So why not talk about reading and writing?!

Simple but profound

This shift to speaking the donor’s dialect sounds so simple. But it’s actually quite hard. It requires us to review our language and ask, “Is this word or phrase in there for us or for them?” Can others understand what we say?

Growing up, dinner conversations at my home were odd. My father is a physician and would talk about things like getting “a contusion.” He knew exactly what he meant. But we were kids and had no idea that he was talking about getting a bruise! We’d have to keep stopping him and ask him to speak English.

But your school’s parents and alumni are not like that. They won’t stop and ask. So you have to stop and ask on your own.

It’s O.K. to start small

It’s ok to start small. I just returned from the second Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle. This year we got to hear back from some 2014 Conference alumni. All of them said they hadn’t “fully” implemented all the strategies they wanted to. But even those who’d made small changes in moving toward speaking the donor’s dialect were seeing results, often huge results. Some had even doubled or tripled their fundraising.

It’s amazing how interested donors become once we take the time to listen to how they talk!

An effective shortcut

But I can hear some of you saying, “Hold on, Marc! There’s no way we can possibly hang out with every single parent and every single alumnus long enough to learn their dialect!”

You’re right. There isn’t. So here’s a short cut: start using “you” more than “we.”

We looked at this in Step #3 on the post “4 School Fundraising Letter Essentials.” The good news is that this helps shape all of our communications.

As we start talking more about the donor’s favorite topic – themselves – than about our schools, we’ll come close to the most magical way to motivate those in our school community to give!

Need more convincing? Check out this video by donor communications expert, Tom Ahern. The video is just over 5 minutes but the results one organization had moving their newsletter from talking about the organization to talking about the donor will amaze you.

Opens link to Tom Ahern's video "How one simple change caused 1000% growth in donations" 501Videos


About the Author

Marc A.  Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the author of Ask Without Fear! and director of The Nonprofit Academy. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family! You can connect with him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook. To get his free ebook on 21 ways to get board members engaged with fundraising, go to

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