School Tragedy transformed into Compelling Campaign

 In Insights

Why Donors Give to Big Ideas, Not Crises

In August 2017, a gas explosion at my high school alma mater resulted in the loss of two precious lives and the destruction of a significant portion of the Upper School Campus – buildings that were built in 1910 and 1917. Like others, I was distraught about the loss, and concerned about its impact on my school’s future. Minnehaha Academy was forever changed. Would we have the confidence and the stamina to move forward?

The answer is a resounding yes. While the school community took time to mourn and heal, school leadership decided the most appropriate way to honor the past and pay respect to the tragic event would be to set a course for transformation. The school now has a bold vision to make Minnehaha one of the most forward-thinking secondary schools in the region as they look forward to their second century.

Creative Fundraising Advisors was brought on to consult on a campaign to raise funds for this transformational project. Our first order of business was to determine if the school could raise $55 million, the largest campaign ever contemplated by this 110-year old institution.

What we learned during the feasibility study was most enlightening and helped to pivot how the school was both approaching their fundraising strategy and presenting their case. While supporters agreed that the explosion was tragic, it was not the primary factor for their gift. Instead, what energized prospects about the campaign was the vision for the future. Had the school relied on messaging that focused on rebuilding, they would have “left money on the table.” It was the bold vision that motivated donors to think about making their largest gift to Minnehaha.

Why Big Ideas Work in Fund-Raising

Big ideas are not shiny new buildings, naming opportunities or expansion for expansion’s sake. Nonprofit fundraising campaigns do well to avoid solely trying to solve a crisis. Donors are not interested in sinking ships. And while strategic fundraising campaigns may, in fact, solve many problems, problems will not drive a campaign to completion.

Big Ideas for a campaign are about how an institution will change to more successfully move forward.

When an entire institution comes together – its board, staff, faculty, alumni and friends – to support its vision, the institution itself is transformed.

It will act different, feel different and, most importantly, be different in a very important way: its “family” will all march forward to the same beat.

Developing the Big Idea for Minnehaha

A central question school leadership addressed during their visioning process is “how do we educate students in the 21st century?” As one of the educators working on the project noted “Many new schools are building like Blockbuster. Minnehaha is building like Netflix.”

The visioning process allowed school leadership to develop a Master Plan by reexamining the student journey during 14 years of education. One of the most significant decisions made was to physically move the Middle School to the Upper School, so that grades 6-12 will enjoy improved instructional and curricular coherence. Another new direction is the commitment to transform classroom instruction to a more student-centered approach (versus lecture-style) whereby students more actively participate in learning. Finally, leadership rededicated itself to the mission-critical core values of Minnehaha: Distinctively Christian, Exceptional Academics, Cultivating Potential and Caring Community.

One challenge for the campaign is the misperception that insurance would cover everything. On the contrary, to build a school for the future, a bold and visionary campaign is required. As we conducted a feasibility study and developed the case for support, we looked at the Big Idea of transforming the whole campus by asking these questions:

Where are we going?

Why does it matter?

Why are we the ones to do it?

What will it take?

Born from the answers is the Together We Rise campaign, signifying renewal at Minnehaha through the most ambitious fundraising effort the school has undertaken.

Together We Rise

There is an undercurrent of passion for strengthening an institution that has served the Twin Cities for over 100 years. Witness of the deep-seated emotion of the Minnehaha community was captured in this video. Campaign Chair Mark Belton summed it up well. “We have an opportunity to put forth future-forward facilities to make the greatest impact on our students. Paul Johnson and Creative Fundraising Advisors are helping make these dreams reality.”

This campaign is much more than a bricks and mortar fund-raising effort. The Big Idea to transform the whole school – campus and programming – in a way that preserves the integral culture of a caring community is invigorating to people. In contrast to the quick-start campaigns that follow natural disasters and other emergencies, the campaign for Minnehaha will have long-lasting impact on relationships, community spirit and education in the Twin Cities region.

Paul Johnson
Founder and President

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