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Keep your Advancement Outreach Simple and Authentic | Emma Balina, Director of Leadership Giving @ The Thacher School

Hudson Flynn | 6 min read

Welcome to the first edition of Boost Shorts, where we ask an advancement all-star a few questions about fundraising, annual giving, leadership giving, and so much more. Today, we’re talking to Emma Balina, the Director of Leadership Giving at The Thacher School in beautiful Ojai, California. We asked her questions about adjusting to her new role, the role of women in fundraising, the benefits of text-to-give, and so much more.

Want to launch your own text-to-give campaign for your K-12 school or university? Click here to learn more about how Boost can help your school bring in 25% more with text-to-give!

Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.

My name is Emma Balina and I am the director of Leadership Giving at the Thacher School, before that I was the director of Annual Giving for four years, also at the Thacher School.

Question 1: What does leadership giving look like at Thacher?

To be honest, I feel like this is new territory for us. Thacher has not had a leadership gifts team before, and so this year is just a lot of data collection to test some hypotheses around what a leadership gifts team could be doing and how it could be functioning at Thacher. Our lead gift officers are focused on lead annual fund gifts of $10,000 or above, legacy giving, reunion giving on the alumni side, and the strategic priorities of the school.

I think that lead gifts at Thacher compliments our office’s general philosophy really well. Our entire office operates from this premise of making everything as personal as possible. And we lean into just honesty and transparency. So when we are reaching out either to reunion alums or new families or existing lead donors, we’re very clear on what our intentions are and who we are. And we just want to make sure that they feel known and seen and appreciated in the community.

Question 2: How do you make your lead donors feel seen and appreciated?

For us, it’s really just a lot of one on one personal outreach and meetings. We do prospect research on people over the summer, particularly reunion alums and new parents, so that by the time we’re reaching out to them we can reference something about them or their background or their kid or their kids interest. And so we’re not going into meetings cold or blind.

We also do a lot around reunion giving with our alums, taking advantage of that cycle hitting every five years to update contact information or LinkedIn info. Additionally, we use it as a chance to do record updates within our data database to help us understand how people’s family lives or career paths may have changed.

Of course, a lot can change over time. And so understanding where folks are at and how that’s changed over the last few years and how they may want to partner with the school moving forward is critical.

Question 3: What does the role of female donors look like?

Women control so much philanthropy now. And so at Thacher in my role I work way more closely with women than with men. I don’t know if it’s because I am a woman and so I’m more comfortable reaching out to and speaking with women. But nowadays so many women either are involved in or make the philanthropic decisions for their families, so prioritizing them is super important.

Question 4: What advice would you give to other advancement pros who recently moved into a new position?

I think something that I’m excited about for this year that I hope other people would embrace as well when moving into a new role is just to be curious and to adopt a growth mindset. I’ve been doing annual giving for 14 years. So like I knew it really, really well. And so now it’s a really exciting challenge to have to learn and grow again and develop a new skill set and be really curious and thoughtful to collect a bunch of data to help understand what would work best at one’s unique institution.

Question 5: What’s one “quick tip” you’d give to boost annual giving at a peer school?

I mean, honestly, keep it simple.

We ditched our flashy direct mail appeals in favor of just really simple, authentic, peer written letters and solicitations.People don’t want to hear from the development office. They’re not inspired to hear from the director of annual giving or even the director of development. But they will give if they hear from a classmate or from a fellow parent or from a student or from a beloved faculty member or somebody in school leadership who is known. So lean in to those partners within the community to help make your outreach and solicitations more impactful and effective.

On the revenue side, just spend your time meeting with people one on one. You’ll make way more money by meeting with people individually and sharing with them the needs of the school rather than focusing on event fundraising or doubling down on appeal strategy.

On the participation side, though, texting was a game changer for us.

And I know some schools have been really hesitant to embrace texting because they feel that it may be too invasive, but everybody texts. We do get a few opt outs here and there, but for the most part, we get far more people giving and thanking us for the reminders to make their gift than hate texts.

Question 6: How does Thacher use Text-to-Give?

We use text a lot for our GOLD (graduates over the last decade) Alums. Since they’re not reading emails, in fact, our email response rate for young people is nonexistent. So texting is really the only way to reach our youngest alums. And we send them either like a mail-merged text or we’ll just spend a couple of hours as a team reaching out and sending things like a photo from around campus that we’ll share with them. Or if we knew they were into horses, because Thacher has a really robust horse program, we’ll take a picture from the barns and send it to them or from a view around campus. Just focusing on what’s special and meaningful. And that will typically get a response from folks.

And we use a lot of emojis.

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Written By

Hudson Flynn

Hudson is the Marketing Manager at Boost My School. He is a graduate of Fordham University and the Albany Academies. Hudson is dedicated to the growth and support of K-12 education and is an active member of his local school community. In his free time, Hudson enjoys playing soccer, hiking, and cooking.