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Stewarding Your Independent School Community Through the COVID-19 Crisis


Independent schools are facing the COVID-19 crisis in motion today and a looming recession. In these uncertain times, donor stewardship is a respectful way to keep donors connected in the near term and lay a foundation for future solicitations.

Stewardship is important for donor retention and relationship building but also serves to help build community at our schools, adding to the value proposition we promise to our families. We have an opportunity to enhance the sense of community at our schools and steward our donors through outreach now. Social distancing does not mean keeping our donors at arm’s length!

As you make plans for personal stewardship over the coming months, consider the following ideas to broaden and deepen the impact of your efforts.

Create an FAQ sheet.

As you make plans to reach out to donors through email, text, phone, and video, prepare yourselves and your volunteers with a short FAQ sheet. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers to questions, but you will feel more confident reaching out if you have prepared responses to the most common inquiries. Sample questions might include:

  • Will there be refunds for expenses such as spring sports/activities, bus, or lunch programs?
  • When will you announce plans for summer programs?
  • How are you supporting families on financial aid? Who may need additional support to finish this school year?

Collaborate with administrators to ensure the way you and your volunteers address common questions is aligned with the rest of the school.

Be curious.

Start your conversation with parents, grandparents, alumni, and donors with curiosity. “How are you?” is a powerful question. It’s impossible to know what your donors are juggling right now: health of loved ones, fears, gratitude, jobs, multiple kids at home, and more.

Start with curiosity first. When you understand their context, you’ll be able to adjust the rest of your interaction to meet them where they are and share stories about the creative spirit bursting from Zoom classrooms and how your school is handling the transition to distance learning in a way that will be most meaningful to them.

Don’t apologize for reaching out.

When you reach out to donors to say thank you, share impact, or ask how they are doing, you are doing this in a true spirit of appreciation. You are connecting with a valued community member. Many of your donors want connection—they are more readily answering phone calls from unknown numbers, more available due to lack of travel, or are focusing more on the details of their children’s school community.

Take notes.

What you learn today from a place of authentic curiosity can be powerful information tomorrow and for future planning. You are asking because you care, but once your donors tell you something, they expect you’ll remember.

Take notes from your interactions. Who is facing job loss or work reductions? Who is feeling anxious to help and do more? This information can help you build donor-centered strategies for next year’s fundraising activities.

Leverage volunteers.

Volunteers from the fall annual fund effort or gala table captains may have capacity to help right now (they also might not—remember to be curious and ask!). These volunteers have already expressed an interest in being ambassadors for the school, have experience making direct outreach to your donor community, and are viewed as leaders in the school. Consider asking your volunteers to:

  • Call their fall prospect lists and check-in. Your volunteers can ask those donors how they are doing, if they are connected with the resources they need at school, and thank them for their support of the annual fund.
  • Expand their call lists if they have the time and space. Could you gather enough volunteers to reach everyone in the school through one-to-one outreach? Consider leveraging admission volunteers who may be inclined to help or parent/guardian association volunteers.
  • Ask your volunteers to be digital ambassadors. We all need some positivity and a reason to smile right now. Encourage your volunteers to share their positive stories in formal and informal digital channels, such as on social media, during virtual town halls, and in informal parent digital happy hours.

    A volunteer could post a photo of a hand-made “thank you, teachers” sign tagging the school’s Instagram page, join in the conversation during a digital classroom parent social hour with a story of a distance learning “win” for their student, or encourage their peers to fill teachers’ inboxes with appreciation.

Identify unexpected resources.

With school programs happening virtually, certain faculty or staff may have more time to help with outreach and stewardship efforts, such as food service staff or coaches. Donors might be extra thrilled to see this creative use of resources, and your faculty and staff might offer a unique and personal voice to messages of gratitude.

Ask for feedback from families.

Many schools have been distance learning for three to six weeks and may be finding a rhythm. If your school hasn’t done so already, create a parent feedback survey. Check in on distance learning programs and ask about school communications: Are parents hearing from the school enough? Too much? Are communications sharing the right mix of information?

Asking for parent feedback and soliciting questions not only provides valuable input for school administrators, it ensures families feel seen and heard. Ultimately, engaged families are more likely to continue giving to your school in the future.

Participate in planning culmination celebrations.

Today’s seniors (or 8th graders, 5th graders, etc.) are tomorrow’s alumni. With the spring year-end celebrations canceled, students and families are feeling disappointed and untethered. It’s important for our schools to find ways to connect and celebrate these students and their families.

As a development leader, you know engaged alumni are a critical part of the vibrant ecosystem of philanthropy and volunteerism that helps our schools thrive. Join these conversations and use your development perspective to create meaningful virtual and postponed experiences that celebrate your capstone students.

Consider engaging alumni in a “call-down” of capstone students and their families, offer alumni swag in care packages for graduating students, and use your communication skills to collaborate on messaging. Your voice at the table will signal to the administration team that these activities launch your ongoing relationship with the next generation of alumni, grateful parents, and grateful grandparents.

We don’t know what the next few months will hold, but that shouldn’t stop us from thoughtfully stewarding our school communities through the uncertainty. If you have additional questions or want to share your own stewardship success story, drop me a line at

You can also visit the Campbell & Company COVID-19 resource page for more guidance and an offer to schedule a free consultation.

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Erin Culbertson
Independent schools are facing the COVID-19 crisis in motion today and a looming recession. In these uncertain times, donor stewardship is a respectful way to keep donors connected in the...
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