Any successful development officer will tell you that fundraising events are a crucial part of the donor development process. Events such as an annual gala are important for finding and connecting with donors to help set the stage for a lasting relationship that will move them toward major giving.
Director of Institutional Advancement
Jennifer Nichols has more than 15 years of experience in philanthropy, marketing and public relations and is a seasoned fund developer, grant writer and program developer.
Jennifer Nichols knew this when she joined on as the Director of Institutional Advancement in 2010 for The John Crosland School in Charlotte, NC. Over the course of 4 years, she has taken the school's annual "Picture This" Gala from a small, family-run event to the successful and widely recognized affair that it is today. We spoke with Jennifer get her story...
What is the John Crosland School?
We are a school for children with learning and attention differences like ADHD and Asperger's. Children who attend the school must have a diagnosed learning difference. The school is dually accredited and has been around for 35 years. We’ve reached 2 states, 8 counties and 21 cities.
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Why do you fundraise?
We get no federal or state funding. Tuition covers roughly 84-86% of our operating budget each year and the rest is philanthropic. Individual giving takes care of the other 15%, which covers in-house reduced tuition (scholarships), development of new facilities and overall expansion.
Two-thirds of our kids come from public school and a lot of those families have a difficult time paying. They raid retirement funds, sell homes – some families even move in from out of state - so philanthropy for us is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. We are dependent on fundraising, and knowing that we realize relationship building [with donors] must be very strong; because it’s not always coming from these families, it’s coming from outside in the community as people understand why we’re here and what community need we fulfill. That’s part of the reason our annual gala is so important.
Tell us a little about your event, the “Picture This” Fundraising Gala.
The gala has gone on for 22 years, but it had always been in the hands of the families. It was really considered a family night event. When I arrived 4 years ago, I changed it and made into a philanthropic event for reaching donors outside the school.
We still have family festivals that are part of our philanthropic package, but they are smaller more focused fundraisers just among the families and extended group. We do this in-house where we put forth a goal – this year we bought an activity bus – so families are still connected to the philanthropic goals and the mission of the school.
For the annual Gala, we really needed a donor event where we could do donor prospecting. Large fundraising events are a wonderful opportunity to bring our donors and donor prospects into the room and talk about where we are in terms of our mission, where we are in terms of our vision, and give them updates so that they are truly insiders.
This year we did a pretty good job of getting donors in the room, but it’s just the beginning. We’re in the process of developing some extra efforts that we want to do starting in October – we have big plans the end of the year and beyond with regard to our donors.
What sort of extra efforts?
One thing that seems to be a struggle for a lot of smaller Nonprofits - or Nonprofits that have not been great at fundraising – is the development of a solid donor base. That’s one of the main reasons I came to this school, was because they didn’t really have one. They had some annual help among the parents, some help from a few grandparents and families of former students, but they had no real donor base. They had never really done any marketing or - what I would consider true fundraising efforts - certainly not philanthropic efforts. They were lacking advancement efforts - truly considering the holistic package for how to move the school forward.
So that was what I came into. I had done projects like this before – I just knew there was going to be a lot of work involved. Knowing that, we just had to come together and agree on certain fundamental principles.
What did the Gala look like 4 years ago compared to today?