How one school built a supporter database

There are many hurdles to cross in creating a donation culture in schools, but the rewards will be worth it, says Sharon Noble

Ongoing fundraising is becoming commonplace in schools as a way of addressing tightening budgets and responding to the increased pressure to provide more than just education. But if you’re new to approaching income generation in a strategic way, the ‘blank canvas’ can appear daunting.

There are many potential sources of funding – from PTA events to setting up a school fund and developing income streams from trusts, alumni, legacies, sponsorship and the corporate sector. But whether you’re stepping up to take on fundraising as a volunteer or in a salaried role, you need to take stock behind the starting line first. This is not going to be a straightforward run and there will be hurdles.

When I began a part-time role as fundraiser at an inner-city secondary school five years ago, there was little regular income-generation activity in place. I was supported by a well-informed and enthusiastic team of governors but there was an urgent need to find funds to support our students and refurbish the dilapidated school buildings. The expectation was that I would build a donation culture and database of supporters, but I knew I first had to identify what had worked in the past. This included a small school fund and relatively small-scale fundraising via the PTA, but also some major grants (including one for a football pitch).

Early on, we decided one ‘quick win’ could be to run a campaign for parental donations to the school fund. We hoped this would encourage regular donations and build up ‘unrestricted’ funds to plug some of the gaps in our budget moving forward. (We’d carried out a five-year budget forecast that made an interesting and daunting read!) It would also, we thought, help develop a broader giving culture at the school, extending it from a small group of amazing PTA heroes to a wider school community notion of parents donating to support their child’s education. Plus, it could provide the beginnings of a donor and supporter database. 

If 50% of parents donated a fairly small amount, the school fund could become a useful income-generation tool to help us build new facilities. A marketing plan was established, materials produced (in-house) and a letter sent home.

Hurdle one: demographic

Our campaign was poorly received. This was partly due to the lack of focus of the fundraising drive, with no specific items detailed, but also our demographic. Many parents wrote back concerned that if they didn’t contribute, their child may miss out (despite our letter being carefully worded to the contrary). Others said they simply didn’t have the spare funds to give. The campaign gave us four regular donors and 25 one-off donations. This did indeed start our donor database but it was very small, as was the income from it.

We realised the database had to be about more than cash – it needed to feel inclusive, something that everyone could become part of. This led to a series of drives to encourage parents to collect things we could swap for cash. The items required changed monthly and included foreign coins, old phones, clothes and even Sainsbury’s vouchers. 

Lots of families got involved, but many weren’t keen to sign up for further information. However, the funds raised were enough to give us ‘matched’ funding for trust and grant applications. The knock-on effect was that money started coming through the door and the school community began to see the benefits.

Hurdle two: GDPR

Up to this point, we had been relying on blanket school communications to get parents involved. Then came GDPR: blanket communications were not allowed if they involved ‘marketing’. Even our PTA database had to be restarted from scratch. Like many schools, we have been nervous about breaching GDPR rules. As a result, we noticed a major reduction in uptake of our fundraising efforts. This especially impacted PTA events and activities.

Together with the PTA, we decided to focus on building and sharing a single donor database. We worked on ways to increase the size and reach of this database, including a signature box at parents evenings so that parents could sign up to receive communications from the PTA, as well as a much bigger PTA presence at meetings and parent events. To date, these efforts have increased the database fourfold.

The new Year 7 start-up forms also include a tick box for receiving communications from the PTA, and this has recruited more interested parents. Indeed, we had to change venue to increase capacity for our Fish & Chips Supper last autumn as there was so much interest. The donor database continued to grow, encompassing both ‘cash’ donors and those offering to help in any way.

Hurdle three: Covid-19

Then came the pandemic. All the fundraising events we had planned for spring were cancelled and we lost projected funding to help finance a major new build to accommodate our growing sixth form and to match-fund grant applications. 

Yet this was also when the giving culture we had tried to cement in recent years really came into its own. Appeals by the school and PTA resulted in donations of laptops, and we had an incredible response to crowdfunding campaigns for laptops and emergency grants for families in need. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of giving, with people donating whatever they can for the sake of the others in the community. 

Families on the breadline have been able to keep their heads above water, children suffering from mental health issues have received counselling, and families in emergency situations have received financial support to buy desperately needed items.

Hurdle four: not losing momentum

As we continue to navigate Covid-19, we have an opportunity to properly thank our donors, old and new, for what has been achieved so far, and to invite them to work with us in the future.

This is a critical time for the school: our database of supporter names and companies has increased dramatically and we are also on the eve of a major new build. Now, we have to keep moving forward, retain and build the interest of our supporters, and, of course, prepare for more hurdles along the way…

  • Sharon Noble is development manager at Chestnut Grove Academy, part of the Wandle Learning Trust in south London.


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