Enduring School Riddles, Part 3

So far, you’ve let me talk about tuition and teachers as two really hard topics for schools to get right. Now in this season of gifts and gratitude, the third riddle appears—fundraising. We just finished Giving Tuesday, having activated about a third of the $25K match offered for Voyager Fund gifts between now and the end of the month, which is also the end of the tax year. The question is, why do schools that charge tuition end up asking for more money anyway? Really, how come? You deserve an answer, and here comes mine:

Good schools everywhere have always benefitted from the gratitude and generosity of families in their community—some of them with graduates, some with current students, some who just care about the work we do for the wider world. Those same good schools also understand the importance of economic diversity in their student body as a source of deeper learning opportunities for everyone. So open-ended, do what you can appeals from schools to help support people, programs, and possibilities became commonplace as a way to supplement tuition revenues, not necessarily as a way to shield families from needing to pay more in basic fees each year, but as a way to acknowledge that some folks have resources that others just don’t have. Different kind of fairness, essentially.

Let me stop there and say that a culture of welcoming bigger gifts from wealthier families opens the door to the perception that with those gifts comes an unspoken promise to cater to those families’ preferences and whims—an absolutely horrible thing to do, by the way, for lots of reasons, and not in Island School’s DNA. And to avoid the appearance of working that way, lots of schools barely ask for anything beyond basic participation, pretending that those income realities don’t exist and losing out on resources that could have been hugely helpful. And if you asked me, I’d say Island School sort of chose that route. 

That’s not to say I don’t respect the good intention of that path. It’s just the reality that works out being pretty tough. Speaking among friends, the fact is that we’re a resources-scarce environment. In response, we’ve raised funds event by event, program by program, in an effort to cover the gaps. And some amazing things have happened—just look at financial assistance available to families here. All while tuition has remained mighty modest. 

So where to now? Let’s keep doing those events (shout out to the imu tenders who cooked the best turkey I ever ate), and let’s keep celebrating at Fall Fests and Auctions, AND let’s think about making Island School a priority for unrestricted giving i.e., the Voyager Fund right alongside those efforts. If each IS family put us somewhere on their philanthropic giving podium, not even necessarily 1st place but up there in the medals somewhere, we’d be fine. Those annual appeal dollars are like rocket fuel for a school, providing the chance to say yes when otherwise it might be no. It’s that simple. Game changer.

For one family, a $50 gift might actually change what groceries they could buy. For another that same level of sacrifice and commitment would add a couple zeroes. What we’d all have in common is that giving to the school would be a priority. If we did that, we’d look more like all the NAIS schools across the state and the country, where average giving per student in 2020 was about $4500 (we’re more like $1000), and we’d see everyone—faculty, students, community—benefit together, with a rising tide lifting all ships.

To put the cookies on a lower shelf, it’s demonstrably clear that we’ve chosen to make every effort to keep tuition low, to be welcoming to all families, and to have a light touch when it came to asking for annual giving, not to mention funding bigger capital gifts (like the building currently in progress). Lots and lots of hard work and limited, more specific fundraising initiatives later, we’re a pretty great school. We absolutely have not chosen to just charge more and pass along all costs through tuition. And we’ve learned to go without.

That’s how we’ve worked through the basic fundraising dilemma so far. What remains to be seen is whether we’ve built or can build sufficient trust that families support us in a more general way, with each doing something meaningful for them and in the process, they change our future and change the culture of giving here. My efforts are going toward building that trust, one conversation at a time. I’m convinced Island School is worth it.

Always ready for the next conversation,

And ps, thx for the support on my appeal to keep the campus looking cared for. It’s a daily commitment. And my current gratitude extends to the good people at Wilcox Hospital who gave me a new hip. Will surely aid in my future litter collection.