Bristol Grammar School (BGS) has always enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence but since the abolition of government-funded schemes, entry has been increasingly available only to those who could afford it.
In making our education offer available only to those with financial means, we felt we lost out on many bright and able children with the desire to learn who would add benefit to the school.
We wanted to help remedy this situation and increase the number of bursaries offered via a dedicated fundraising campaign.
The 500 Campaign
The priority in creating a new campaign was understanding the level of need for financial support and constructing a credible and sincere mission for the whole school community to buy into. We needed to create a case for support that would make sense for donors, parents, staff and the children themselves.
The mission statement became: “To provide an exceptional and rounded education to those who might benefit from it, regardless of their background and financial means.”
The resulting 500 Campaign was launched in 2021 with the key message that here was an opportunity to change lives through education. The BGS fundraising team needed to double the current bursary provision to enable the school to achieve its target that one in four senior school children should receive a means-tested bursary of at least 50 per cent. Our plan is to raise £12million by 2032.
Changing the culture of bursary support
A key objective in the campaign was to redefine bursary recipients as “bursary award holders”.
Our marketing research found that many parents were uncomfortable in applying to a perceived “exclusive and posh” school because of concerns as to whether their children would feel they belonged.
Traditionally, bursaries have been private financial arrangements made between the bursar and the families of the student receiving the award. Reportedly, the children who benefited from them felt that this was something to keep “secret” and, potentially, even to feel embarrassed about. Equally, sometimes those living in less affluent areas have experienced bullying for even wearing a school blazer in their neighbourhood and this made them wary of “being different”.
These factors sometimes acted as barriers to applications for bursaries.
Consequently, we began our campaign by attempting to understand how we could destigmatise the “bursary” label. We focused our research on young adults in the Sixth Form (16–18-year-olds) and asked them how they felt about being a bursary student. Some expressed a need for anonymity, but many were proud of their achievements. We therefore used the campaign to encourage a sense of ownership and pride which recognised and acknowledged that the inclusion of these hard working, ambitious children.
“Many parents were uncomfortable in applying to a perceived ‘exclusive and posh’ school.”
Via the campaign messaging, we challenged prejudice and demonstrated that bursary award holders have earned their places at BGS. We showed that they are found amongst our leading lights as star actors and musicians, captains, prefects, heads of school and major contributors in so many other ways. They inspire others and, in doing so, amplify the strong culture of learning, kindness, camaraderie and inclusivity that are the hallmarks of BGS.
Since launching the campaign an increasing number of sixth form students (and parents) have volunteered to be part of our promotional films and literature suggesting that, slowly, a culture of acceptance and pride in being an “award holder” is indeed emerging.
We have also appointed a bursary liaison officer to act as lead pastoral care contact for those prospective and existing students who may require additional financial and emotional support.
Developing the campaign and creating engagement platforms
Much of the focus of the campaign was on cultivating high net worth donors to raise significant funds (an average of at least £1m a year was needed), but in parallel we had to broaden out our appeal and address the wider BGS community.
“We were able to focus on the number of children able to gain access as a result of the campaign.”
Consequently, we set out to appeal to a demographic that benefitted directly from an education at BGS or/and whose children benefited. The ask was therefore to change lives for children “regardless of background and financial means” rather than supporting a wealthy independent school. We were not raising funds for BGS, but for those bright and able children who would add so much to the school and gain a sense of belonging.
This broader appeal meant we could focus on the end result- ie the number of children able to gain access as a result of the campaign – rather than the pounds raised and spent.
We focused on three areas of engagement:
- Mentoring: Adding value to a young person’s life by sharing advice and career guidance
- Volunteering: Offering time. Providing a venue for an event. Attending an event and encouraging others to do so. Also, sharing the mission and values of the campaign through social media and word of mouth
- Philanthropic Giving: Making a small donation, which collectively would add to a life-changing bursary award. Making a larger donation as a leadership donor. Leaving a legacy gift in your will.
The role of major donors
While engagement of the widest community was essential in creating universal buy-in and support for the campaign, the role of major donors was central to our success.
The reality is that of the £1.2million raised in the first year of the campaign over £800,000 was raised from just five people. During a Giving Day exercise, we raised £140,000 from a further two people which encouraged a further 300 donors to give, collectively, £52,000.
“Over £800,000 was raised from just five people.”
The importance of major gift work cannot be understated. It is the bedrock of any campaign and creates assurance, stability and tangible results.
The key steps we took to secure the major donors for our campaign were to:
- identify those who have given before
- research those who have the capacity to give (looking at their job title, property holdings and previous, similar charitable activity)
- research and engage those who have benefitted from an education at the school
- tell the campaign story – ie its values, mission and progress
- invite prospective major donors to become Ambassadors of the Campaign, asking them to lend a voice, provide a quote or appear on a promotional film
- make major donors feel like architects of change rather than just part of a mass fundraising push
- celebrate their involvement
- offer sponsorship opportunities – particularly of Sixth Form students – where donors could see progress within two years (and in some cases be able to meet the children and their parents)
With the money raised from our “leadership donors” (those giving over £100,000) we were able to demonstrate impact immediately. Over 30 children are now attending the school with the money raised within the first two years of the campaign and most of these are receiving awards of over 80 per cent.
The campaign continues.
Quick Tips – creating a new campaign
- Have the full support of the head, governors and SLT
- Identify need. Why is giving essential to the progress of the school?
- Ensure that the case for support has emotional impact
- Do you have a team to support you? A budget? A decent database?
- Have a solid and friendly working relationship with your alumni society
- Ensure that your events are strategic and do not spent time on them if not
- Focus on building relationships with high-net-worth donors and prospects
- Create an annual stewardship event to showcase and promote the campaign
- Do not focus on annual returns- rather the long term aim. Some years will be better than others!
- Create professional marketing material and promotional films that detail:
- How funds raised have impacted lives
- How will donors feel? How will children and their parents feel?
- How will giving raise standards and ensure long lasting security and prosperity?
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.