Rethinking Fundraising Events with Chris Pryor
In this episode, we explore the world of school partnerships and fundraising with expert Chris Pryor. Chris is the founder and principal of Lead Team Partners. With a career spanning more than two decades in independent schools, Chris has worn many hats from Director of Admission to Assistant Head for Advancement. Tune in to learn how to lead with conviction by highlighting key objectives and maximizing volunteer involvement and how to establish unwavering trust and transparency for outstanding fundraising results. From galas to engaging parents, we uncover the challenges and opportunities in the field.
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About Chris Pryor:
Chris Pryor, the founder and principal of Lead Team Partners. With a career spanning more than two decades in independent schools, Chris has worn many hats from Director of Admission to Assistant Head for Advancement. His vast experience and extensive network make him a trusted advisor for schools seeking assistance in partner searches. Chris’ background and knowledge in development, enrollment, marketing, and communications make him a valuable resource for those looking to rethink fundraising events.
Find Chris Pryor:
https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-p-0a2a2995/ – Chris Pryor
https://www.linkedin.com/company/leadteam-partners/ – LeadTeam Partners
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Aubrey: Today we’re joined by Christopher Pryor. Chris is the founder and principal of Lead Team Partners. After a 20 plus year career in independent schools, Chris now leverages his experience and extended network to help school leaders navigate school partner searches. Doing so allows school leaders to prioritize day-to-day operations while delegating the search to a trusted advisor. Welcome, Chris. We’re so happy you’re here. Chris: Thanks so much Aubrey and Tara. I’m glad to be here. Tara: Thanks so much for joining us. Chris, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? Tell us, introduce yourself to our audience for those who Chris: don’t know you. Sure. I’m an independent school graduate. Uh, and then I. Jumped into the admission world, uh, following college graduation, and, um, worked my way up to a, uh, director of admission at a couple different schools. And then I had a wonderful mentor that encouraged me to, uh, consider moving into the development space. And so I, uh, I joined a, uh, infant through eighth grade school as a director of development and, uh, really enjoyed that work. Uh, culminated as an assistant head for advancement. Uh, and then I spent a year at a large consulting firm, uh, running their. Uh, business development, uh, which kind of helped me, uh, envision the idea for lead team partners. So, uh, long history in schools, uh, and, and both boarding and independent, uh, day schools. So, uh, I think it’s, uh, it’s the exact recipe for kind of what I’m doing today. And Aubrey: speaking of what you’re doing today, you recently launched lead team Partners. Can you tell us a little bit more about this new and exciting venture and what exactly is a school partner search? I’m school. I’m sure many schools haven’t yet heard of that service before and they’ll want to know more about it. Chris: Yeah, thanks. So I schools use, uh, search firms for a lot of different things, uh, primarily around talent, head school, search administrator, teacher. And what I found was when I was an administrator is that we always had a strategic need and that would require, uh, often a consultant to come in. And so how do you find that right consultant? How do you vet them? It’s a, it’s a time intensive process. You don’t always know who’s out there, so you, you call a friend down the street, and so I, I thought, This would be a really interesting and helpful service to really busy school administrators. And uh, so when I think of school partner, I think of consultant. I think of a facilitator or a speaker or some type of, um, outside vendor that’s gonna come in and make your job a little bit easier. Uh, and so we do searches primarily. In the advancement, uh, space development, enrollment, marketing, communications, as well as strategic planning. But I see it, I see the potential to grow, uh, across a lot of different areas within schools. Tara: It’s a great idea. I think, um, you, you know, so many people in this space and I think you’re a great connector. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a great idea and I, I hope that, uh, I look forward to seeing it grow. Um, and I know you, you have worked with a lot of schools already and have a lot of experience in the area of advancement and fundraising and development, so I could you just, let’s start by talking a little bit about trends that you’re seeing in that area of development and fundraising in general. Chris: Sure I, capital campaigns are definitely back. Uh, every school that I talk to is either in the middle of one or planning for one. Um, and I think, you know, post covid, it’s, uh, people kind of hit a pause and now they’re ready to, to kind of resume engagement with their, with their community in a big way. And, and so I see, um, lots of schools engaging in, uh, capital campaign efforts. Uh, I think there’s definitely a focus on leadership and major giving. Um, I, I see kind of the, um, pretty ubiquitous use of giving days to help with, uh, with giving participation. Um, no longer are schools kind of, uh, leveraging the phone-a-thon. I think they’re using technology in these giving days to help drive, uh, participation, especially in the, in the springtime. I think, uh, development offices are overwhelmed with the number of events. And so they’re trying to figure out, uh, what events to prioritize which ones really move the needle in terms of their fundraising goals. And, um, you know, which, which events are there for kind of community building. Um, certainly galas, uh, have, have been. A hot topic on some schools. You know, do we have them? Are they inclusive? Um, how can we make them more inclusive? Uh, should we have them at all? So I think that’s, uh, I see schools kind of, uh, making tweaks to their gala strategy. Um, and I think, you know, schools are trying to, uh, kind of reinve how they engage with their alumni. Uh, alumni don’t necessarily just wanna show up in, in a urban setting and mingle with people that they don’t know that graduated from the institution, uh, years ago. Uh, so I think they’re, they’re starting to be more creative in, in how they gather and engage with their alumni. And finally, uh, because the work is hard, I think you’re seeing, uh, some openings, uh, and particularly, uh, in the data services advancement services space. Um, I’ve. Obviously the important role of data in, in, uh, developing, uh, a strong fundraising, uh, program. And, and so those individuals that kind of live and breathe in the data are, are, are gold for your office, and yet they’re, they’re sometimes hard to keep. I’ve, I’ve been seeing some, some openings in, in that area. So those are a couple of things that, uh, I’ve been hearing and seeing in my work, uh, with development shops around the country. That’s great. I’m Aubrey: so glad you touched on all those things. We just, cause what we’ve been seeing as well, and it’s so good that you wrapped it all in one because I don’t think schools realize some of those trends that are happening. They might notice them now, as you said them in their own schools. So thank you for bringing light to some of those trends. Now, one thing you did mention was kind of gala’s auctions. So it is a hot topic. Um, we’ve seen many schools struggle, you know, overall with this fundraising format. Um, often they’re begging people to attend. Yet people the same. Only the same people attend. There’s also that matter, which you mentioned of inclusivity. Inclusivity, and also limited donations to be had. Yet also, auctions continue to be very popular with schools and sometimes are beloved by many in the community. Can you really shed some light on some of the pros and cons of galas and what schools may want to consider when deciding to keep or discontinue these Chris: events? Ooh. Uh, sir, I, so I, I actually just ran a gala for a small independent school in Northern Virginia. It was their first ever event. Uh, so the, it was a clean, uh, clean slate. It was a lot of fun. Um, and we were successful. Uh, we, we kind of raised more than they had initially planned, which was, which is great. But I, generally speaking, I see schools trying to sunset them in some cases and lean into annual fund and major giving. Uh, because the lift to, uh, put on a gala is, is a lot, not, not only in terms of staff time, but also in terms of volunteer time. Uh, so some pros I would say, you know, they’re fun. Uh, they serve as a community builder, especially after Covid, people wanted to get back into the school. They wanted to rub elbows with teachers. They wanted to, you know, to see their friends. And in some cases get dressed up. Although I’m seeing, uh, a lot of galas are, are, are going a little bit more casual, uh, this, you know, this round. Um, I think, you know, galas oftentimes raised money for a specific effort. Um, some of the schools in the DC market do a great job around need-based financial aid. Uh, but some, some families and some communities, uh, that’s not a driver for them. And so it’s a specific, tangible pro uh, uh, project. I was talking to a school the other day and they’re gonna raise money for a, a new playground. And so they’re gonna have their cocktail hour on the current playground so that they can, uh, remember kinda why they’re all there tonight and, and what can be done with their philanthropy. Um, I also think, you know, it’s a great opportunity to bring in sponsors and, and, and, and build excitement, uh, around your community. And, and remind them what’s so wonderful about your school and your mission and the faculty and staff. So those are all the great reasons to get together. Um, and have a gala. I mentioned it’s a huge lift. Um, I mean, the event that I worked on, it was, it took months, uh, and dedicated hours, um, where that’s the only thing you’re working on. Really? Um, yeah, they’re expensive too. I mean, whether you’re renting a space or you’re executing it in your own gym or on your campus, I mean, the auctioneer, the drapes, the, you name it, uh, they’re, they’re pretty expensive. And so what’s the return on investment? Um, I think galas can breed a sense of a give and get mentality. I know at one school that I worked at, they were definitely gala driven in their philanthropy, and it took a couple of years to move away from. This give, get, uh, mentality and, and, and really speak to the fact that their philanthropy was, uh, was supporting the mission of the school and they didn’t need the trip to Mexico or, uh, or the tickets to Hamilton, uh, to, you know, to, to support the institution. And again, we talked about inclusivity. I, I, I saw one school in Boston had ticket prices where they were. At three different levels. There was a standard ticket price, there was a ticket price if you could do a little bit more, and there was a ticket price if you needed to do a little bit less. I thought that was an interesting strategy. Uh, a school in Pennsylvania that I recently spoke to dropped their prices down to $50 to come. Um, in, in the event that we did, it was a hundred. And yet there were still questions about would we get families to attend? Um, and, and so, By having it be kind of a lower price point, uh, you know, hopefully more families will come. Having it be a little bit more casual and not the black tie, uh, uh, event makes it, uh, more accessible. But frankly, some people just don’t wanna get into a big room with, with a, a bunch of people from their community. So they’re just not, you know, they’re not gonna go. Um, but the schools that I have seen that have sunset them and leaned into their advancement programming around annual fund and major gifts, Have, have really not lost ground. They’ve gained ground. But again, it, each community is different. Um, I talked to a school, uh, in Michigan and they’re like, Ooh, I would love the director of development. Said, I would love to sunset this, but it’s just not gonna happen on my, on my watch. So if you’re gonna have one, uh, I think there are ways to do them pretty well. I think focusing on time with teachers is a great strategy. Certainly kind of, uh, setting the deck with, uh, the raise the paddle before you get in in the room is a smart strategy. I think sponsors are, are, uh, it’s low hanging fruit and, and that’s where you should, should focus. Um, and then, you know, make sure that people have a great, a great time so they remember the event and they wanna come back in, in, in future years and, and hopefully bring a friend or two. But, um, they, they are time consuming. Um, and they’re, you know, you have to think about your community, your overall goals, and whether, uh, hosting a gala, you know, fits that strategy. Tara: Yeah, those are all great tips and great ideas. I mean, think about where, uh, schools have been with Covid and, and how happy people are to be back in person and not be doing the online. Trivia is, uh, you know, all those types of things which were really hard to generate enthusiasm for, although I think some people did it with some success. Um, yeah, so those were a, a lot of Aubrey: great tips. Just Tara: lost my headphones. Um, so I wanna ask you now about millennials and changing parent communities. Um, how do you think that that millennials and external events are impacting these fundraising events in Chris: schools? Yeah, I think it’s interesting. Um, schools are really trying hard to reengage families post covid. I think, uh, in talking to some of the consultants that I, that I speak with, they’re being engaged to come in and work with the parent association, uh, and define what the, what that organization’s role is, what their mission is. Um, you know, I found in my, my time in schools that parents are busy. Our schools are, are, um, are expensive. And so more and more families have, uh, You know, two adults working outside the home, uh, to, to earn the money to, to, to afford our schools. And, and, um, and so time is short. Um, I, I’ve found that many parents wanna do specific engagements that pertain to their own child or their child’s grade, and not necessarily the school writ large. Um, I’ve seen, um, you know, parents that are very specific about the skill that they have and how they can, they can use it to help, um, your institution, but they’re not into just long-term, um, you know, meetings and, and, and events. So I think you need to be very strategic about who you ask, how you ask, um, and have these kind of micro. Type, um, volunteer opportunities that aren’t necessarily year long. Of course you need those year long things for, um, for board members and, uh, and committee members and, and another, um, you know, uh, kind of larger, uh, term. Um, Initiatives. But for, for the most part, parents, parents are, are focused on their own kids. Uh, they’re focused on, on their work. Um, and, and they wanna be home. And so, uh, and with the fact that our tuitions are pretty high, you know, there’s, there’s this kind of mentality. In some places that, you know, we pay tuition, we expect that some of this is just gonna be done for us, and we can just, we can just arrive. So, um, I think the personal ask, just like you do in, in asking for a gift is key. Um, trying to get to know the families, understand where their interests are, and then kind of. Um, match them with the appropriate volunteer opportunity. I think also just awareness of that. There are a, a number of ways to get involved. Uh, lots of schools have giving and getting involved pamphlets or brochures to help new families understand the ways in which they can get involved. Um, because our schools are communities and, and, and, um, you know, that’s, that’s one of the major, uh, value adds is that you feel part of a community. Um, even though they’re not your neighbor around the corner, they might be 30 minutes down the road. My daughter currently attends a school in another state, and, um, it’s hard to be. Uh, involved in that community on a day to day. Um, so I do try and look for, for small opportunities where, where, where I can get involved. Um, so I think, I think it’s a question of looking again at your strategy, trying to meet parents where they are with their time, um, and, and, and not feeling like, You have to do as many events. I think, uh, there’s definitely burnout on, on that front. Um, but if there, if there are events that are connected with your child and their experience, I think you’re gonna have a better return on, on investment. I’m so Aubrey: glad you mentioned that. I feel like we could do a whole podcast episode on parent volunteering. And, uh, difference. I mean, having worked in the independent school space for almost 20 years, uh, watching that transformation, uh, has been very intriguing. And it’s interesting how it’s impacted development offices. Like there used to be like, oh, the parent volunteers are going to chair these committees and they’re going to do these things. I mean, Having, having worked with so many schools who are like, yeah, we can’t find a chair for any of this. I’m like, yes. Right. No one wants to sign up for it. Cause their, their, their priorities have shifted. Right. And I think what you mentioned is, is so important because it means we need to constantly ask ourselves. Like are, what’s our community up to? Like they’re constantly changing. These millennials, just our parent communities in general have changed. And keeping up to, like you said, like what, getting to know your families and understand really how they wanna volunteer and get involved with your development office is really important. So I’m so glad you mentioned that. Chris: Now in terms of, yeah, Aubrey, I would, yeah, Aubrey, I would, I would jump in and just say, you know, you need to survey, right? Yes. Like, ask them if, right. If you don’t survey you, you don’t, you don’t know. And it doesn’t have to be a, a super likely survey, but if you just get their feedback, then you can, you can redirect your efforts, uh, appropriately. So, Aubrey: Absolutely. I a hundred percent agree. It’s, in fact, it’s one of the things we do a lot because, you know, we can sit in our offices and guess, or talk to a couple of families, but we need a broader idea of what parents are interested in and, and why. Um, and then being able to plan around that. So thank you for bringing up the surveys. Very important. Now, um, we kind of touched on, you know, development teams. Um, and I’m curious, especially like development teams, especially for those small schools, there seems to be this increasing pressure for. Schools to raise money, right? Yet many schools are operating with limited staffing and resources. In addition, there seems to be a shortage of development professionals in the school space. So what recommendations do you have for small school development teams or just small teams in general to be able to meet their goals without burning out? Chris: Yeah, that’s a that, so I was looking online at the NAS job board to see how many development, uh, positions were open before our talk today. And there are nearly 200, uh, many of them are directors of development, directors of advancement, uh, big schools, small schools. You know, there are, there are definitely jobs to be had, I know of, uh, quite a few openings in the DC market. Um, you know, for small schools, I, I, you know, development directors have to wear so many different hats. Admission directors, you know, all, all leadership team members. Um, I think, you know, the key to be successful is to build a strong, trusting relationship with your head of school. Uh, I think that that’s the most important thing you can do, uh, and be very clear around your goals, um, and your priorities for the year. Uh, and, and kind of have. The ability to say, I, I don’t have, I, I don’t have time. This doesn’t move the needle. This is not gonna be a priority this year. Um, I think you need to work very closely with your communications and marketing, uh, person. I mean, they’re. Um, they’re your right hand person in terms of, um, connecting with your constituents, uh, and raising the money since such, so much of it is now kind of done online through video, through pictures, et cetera. Um, you know, you have to have your, your, you have to build and maintain a small, reliable, consistent volunteer force, uh, that you can turn to and say, Hey, I need some help with this or that. Um, and have a pipeline, uh, so that you’re not constantly going back to the same people year, year in and year out. Um, that you’re kind of grooming them to take, uh, you know, more initiative in, in the future years. And I think you need to be really focused on, you know, what’s the goal around fundraising? It’s not, you’re not the, um, Special events, king or queen, you know, you, you, you’re not just there to put on all the, the events. You’re there to fundraise. And so that takes time, uh, focus time, uh, where you’re able to sit with, uh, families and alums and talk about the school, provide stor, you know, stories of excellence and, and get them really excited about where the, the school is going. So, you know, start with the head, you know, crystallize what your goals are. Have a, have a team of, of, of, of sport, you know, whether they be colleagues or volunteers. Um, and then really just focus on that, that the fundraising, and try and push the, the event, the event components either off the table completely or, or, um, or limit them as much as you can. Tara: This is such important information. I know it’s a, it’s a huge challenge that schools face and it’s something that really not many people enjoy, um, diving into, uh, and even when it comes to, you know, raising donations, um, and getting support through your website, you know, that’s another thing that I. That can be optimized as well, that I think, um, a lot of schools don’t, don’t put enough into that process on their website. And making that a compelling message too. Just as a little side note as a website person, um, but I appreciate your sharing, um, all of the tips that you’ve shared in to help schools kind of get into this really difficult and challenging topic of development. Um, In our podcast, we also talk about mindfulness in addition to marketing and, and growing enrollment and growing, um, support and how mindfulness applies to people who do this work, right? As we’ve been saying, it’s challenging and trying to get all of the resources that you need is hard, and it can be overwhelming. So how do you see mindfulness applied to school fundraising and development efforts? How can that be used? Um, Chris: productively. Yeah, I, I, I, I, I think, uh, we’re energy people to begin with. I mean, uh, and, and so. Um, you know, taking a pause and reflection I think is, is important, especially as you think about, you know, the performance of the past year, the performance of your team, and where you’d like to go. I mean, living in schools is frenetic. It’s only getting more frenetic. You know, there’s events, meetings, calls, emails. Um, and as Aubrey mentioned earlier, the goals just, you know, the be, you know, the goal line gets pushed further and further down the field. Um, so I, I think y you know, grounding in what’s important, you know, what’s your why, uh, what’s the school’s mission, you know, why, why do you do this work is really important. Um, you know, I think it’s understanding that you give your best effort every day. And that’s enough. Um, you know, you can’t burn the midnight oil, um, all the time, or you, or you will burn out. Um, and so you need to find things that, you know, recharge your battery, re replenish you. Um, when I was, um, leading teams, you know, it was always great to, to have that retreat where the team could kind of go away. Spend time with each other, get to know each other, um, as, as, as people. And, and not just as, as colleagues. But, um, Dave Michael man is a former head and, and a consultant. He just actually sent a, a blog post about how he does meditation, uh, you know, every morning for 15 minutes. And I, uh, Trevor from Truth Tree, you know, has a process in the morning. I, I, you know, for me, I find that time is, is walking my dog. Um, and I just kind of, uh, You know, put in my, put in my music and, and take a walk around the block for a little bit. Uh, and that’s very grounding. Um, for others it’s walking in the woods, uh, or, or doing yoga or what have you. But I. Um, as our, our worlds, our lives are so busy. I think finding a time to figure out what kind of, um, fills you back up is really, really important. And now we can hang out with friends again. So that’s important too. Aubrey: Yes. Thank goodness. Thank you for sharing that. That’s really important. Um, because our development professionals, all our school leaders for sure need to find that, that time to recenter themselves. Um, so I appreciate you mentioning that. Now we’re about to dive into the questions that we ask all our guests, our rapid fire questions. Are you ready to dive in, Chris? Chris: Let’s go. Aubrey: Okay. I love your enthusiasm. All right. If you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be? Chris: So, I’m gonna say how soccer explains the world. And you’re gonna go like, what? I’m a huge soccer fan. I love that. Soccer’s growing in the United States. Uh, and I think this book is wonderful and you learn a little, uh, world history along the way. So how soccer, uh, explains the world as a great one. Very Tara: cool and fun. I’ll have to look that up. Thanks. We’ll put that on our Good Reads list. Uh, Chris, what’s one app you could not live without? Chris: Uh. Uh, team Snap. It is, uh, it’s a, um, an app that helps coordinate all my kids practices and games. Um, that helps me stay, uh, on, on track, uh, generally with my, with my day to day stuff. The team Snap. Aubrey: I love that. That’s a new app. We haven’t heard that. And I know how active your children are after our mini conversations, so I’m sure you do need that. Um, okay, so what is one resource, that resource that you found helpful that, um, you really go back to Chris: a lot? Uh, So I’ve been following a couple of, uh, people, Austin Church being one as a new solo entrepreneur, you know, trying to figure out how to do this business thing. And I think, uh, there’s a lot of tips and tricks about, you know, writing and copy. And, um, and engagement that have been really helpful. And also kind of how to position yourself and your, and your company, uh, to find success. So I’ve already started to make some tweaks, um, in, in some of the things that I’ve done, even though I’m three months in and I anticipate, uh, you know, I’ll continue to learn throughout this year. Tara: Thank you so much. That’s great. What is one great piece of advice that you can leave us with today, Aubrey: Chris? Chris: So when I was earlier in my career, uh, I had a, had a boss that came to me one day and said, do you wanna be right or do you wanna be effective? Frankly, I’m still, I’m still battling that. Uh, but I think, you know, uh, in schools, you know, you need to think about. What is the, the best thing for your team, especially as a leader, you’re there, uh, with a, a servant leadership heart. And so looking at, you know, what’s, what’s gonna be the most effective thing, um, is, is probab is the most important. Um, and, and, and kind of winning points on being right, you know, has to take a back, uh, a backseat. But, um, uh, and you know, the more roles you have in schools, Uh, the more interesting you are. So, um, I don’t be afraid to say yes and, and jump in and try and do something new. I think it’s energizing, it’s refreshing. Um, and it, it makes you more marketable down, you know, down the road. Thank you so Aubrey: much, Chris. That was a great piece of advice. Now I love it. If people, people wanna learn more about you and lead team partners, where can they find you Chris: online? So let team partners.com is the, is the website and then, uh, you’ll see me a lot on LinkedIn. That’s the one social that I use. So, uh, and you know, you can always send me an email at chris. Let team partners.com. Tara: Thank you Chris. It’s really been great to have you here. Thanks for sharing so much great information for Chris: our audience. Delighted to be with you and excited for our May DMV consultant gathering coming up soon. Yes. Awesome. Aubrey: And Tara: wait. Alright, have a great day. Bye. Chris: You too. Aubrey: Bye-bye. Inquiry Tracker is the all-in-one CR R M solution used by over 250 schools. Easily manage all your inquiries, tours, and open houses. Key Instant Analytics help you manage and grow a robust pipeline, so end spreadsheets forever. The Smart Tara: Online Application System with Powerful Document Upload is a game changer. No school is too small or too big, and their Fast Start Program will get you up and running in no time. Best of all Aubrey: the system is designed by K12 education, marketing, and admissions professionals. Check out Inquiry firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s inquiry with me tracker.net. Tara: Thanks for joining us on the Mindful School Marketing Podcast. Aubrey: We’d love it if you pop into iTunes and leave up review five Star Preferred. Let us know how you like the show. It helps us improve what we’re doing and helps others find us too.
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