1,400 education advancement folk convened this week in Austin, Texas for the annual CASE NAIS conference. School fundraisers, marketers and alumni managers from across the US, and internationally, scooted between speaker sessions, workshops and coffee stations, forging a strong community of people passionate about making a difference and advancing their educational institutions.
Last year’s keynote was focused on the macro-economic climate and inflationary backdrop of 2023, and whilst these themes remained strong, in 2024 there was a noticeable conference buzz about tech - opposite for Austin, nicknamed as Silicon Hills for its burgeoning tech start-up scene.
Emilie Henry, Advancement VP at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, commented in the opening plenary that the “new arms race in schools and universities is technology to deliver scalability’ - a sentiment which resonates across the wider business world. We all feel the pressure to speed up, become more efficient, and get to grips with tech to help us do so.
It was also interesting to hear that whilst the number of advancement professionals has doubled over the last ten years, it’s by no means any easier for these fundraising offices to go about their work. “The expectation to give can’t be relied upon anymore” said David Smith, Director of Development, Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. “In this post-pandemic stage we have to get more comfortable in the way we talk to our school communities about money” he continued. We also need to transparently communicate the outcome of a donor's generosity - highlighting the impact of the gift and offering clear avenues for active donor involvement with the school or college.
Moreover, there was a consistent emphasis on the pivotal role of Senior Leadership and the Head being actively engaged in the communications and relationships integral to the advancement effort. This was evident in the session co-run by Head of School, Jonathan Eades and his Director of Advancement, Thomas Moore from KinKaid School. The session provided a live demonstration of the essential collaboration needed during the planning and execution of the School's largest-ever capital campaign, which took place during the most challenging times in late 2021, coinciding with post-COVID pandemic and the appointment of the new Head.
A highlight for me was listening to one of our dynamic customers, Katy Steventon, all the way from historic 457 year old, top 10 boarding school, Rugby in the UK. Katy took us through her journey of her personal experiences of project management for the British Army and provided a fascinating analogy of how this can be applied to a schools advancement office. The key takeaway from the session centered around tailoring your communications to the recipient, using their language. It's your responsibility to convey your message clearly; it shouldn't be the burden of your recipient to decipher what you mean and no one speaks more clearly than people in the military!
From the 100 or so conversations I had at CASE NAIS, it was apparent that Events and Anniversaries are big on the agenda for this year. Kim Otsuji Link has recently joined her alma mater, Detroit County Day School, as their Alumni Director and is restarting their event program, with three new team members. Lots of reunions and regional alumni gatherings are on the cards, confirming the ongoing appetite for in person meetups and events.
St Andrew’s College (Ontario, Canada) is geering up for their 125th Anniversary and Peter Gallo at Landon School, MD for its 100th! These milestones are opportunities to bring a school community together with a big campaign and lots of mini ‘touchpoints’ through the year. Sometimes these more orchestrated one-off events have a bigger impact than simply repeating a recurring alumni reunion in the same format - the jury’s out on this - several people told me about their popular annual sporting events and golf days, a calendar highlight every year!
Certainly an overriding theme from everyone I spoke to, was the idea of better ‘streamlining’ their events processes - and other activities - and using technology to deliver more pace and scale. The ability to manage events and donations in one place was mentioned several times, as was the flexibility to create custom database fields and easy filters for tracking and communicating with event attendees. All bird-song for my ToucanTech ears as this stuff is our exact place of expertise. We’re offering all attendees of CASE NAIS 2024 the opportunity to have a customized community or fundraising site demo built by us to help you picture how our software could work for you…interested? Get in touch.
A special shout out to Amanda Brown from our local customer, Austin Montessori - always a treat to meet in person! And to Renata Henry, LeLe Levay and Katy Steventon who joined us and our extended US team for dinner at a traditional Texan Steak House! Finally, congratulations to Caroline Reilly from Hotchkiss School in Connecticut who came to see us and won the quintessentially English Fortnum & Mason Hamper from our stand!
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