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The Essentiality of Endowment: Lessons Learned from The Agnon School

Intentions are noble but what is urgent inevitably trumps what is important. We know that too well at The Agnon School in Cleveland. Fortunately, we also know that a clear vision, the proper tools, and a little bit of luck goes a long way toward achieving one’s goals.

Our school opened its doors in 1969. We have always known that we have to commit development dollars to keep the lights on and pay teachers’ salaries.  But even in the early years we also understood that a checking account was not enough—that we would need savings to ensure a smooth and successful transition into the 21st century and beyond. To that end, in 1981 we established an endowment fund with help from one of our founders, who contributed $3,000. For close to 30 years, the endowment vacillated between moderate growth and decline, as funds were needed to maintain the operating budget. The net result was that we maintained a $1 million balance for quite some time.

Finally, toward the end of 2010, after weathering the national economic storm, our Board of Trustees and Head of School once again devoted concerted efforts to growing our endowment and securing our future. This time, we had three factors in our favor: (1) the economy was beginning to improve, (2) our school had maintained a balanced budget the previous couple of years, and (3) a generous benefactor committed funds to staff the position of Endowment Director.

Once the school added personnel to its development staff in February 2011, we were on our way.  We used the opportunity that comes with doubling the development staff to build an infrastructure around our endowment and planned giving program. Our objective was to create the best possible program for our school—in the most efficient way.

With that goal in mind, we developed a three-step plan: learning all we could about endowment and legacy giving; researching successful programs, including collecting sample materials; and speaking to experts. In our case, “speaking with experts” meant meeting with endowment officers who represented other area private schools and local organizations. It also meant contacting PEJE and asking them to recommend schools and professionals who had experience building thriving endowment programs.

I firmly believe we saved ourselves a great deal of time by learning from others. To date, we have:

  • Drafted a case statement and incorporated it into a business plan.
  • Researched potential giving opportunities and attached some dollar amounts to them.
  • Compiled lists of potential donors based on capacity and our perceptions of their affinity for the school.
  • Prioritized those donors, based on research related to their passions and sensitive areas.
  • Cultivated donors—this time in a more targeted, focused manner.
  • Developed an Honorary Endowment Committee and identified members who will lend their names and reputations to an endowment donor recognition society.
  • Created a buzz around two major gifts.
  • Worked on marketing strategies to maximize both endowment and annual giving.

Understanding that we have limited resources, and in an attempt to maximize our reach, we have also tried our best to link endowment and annual giving conversations and initiatives. Not only is this approach supported by data; it is also extremely efficient.

If you are wondering how you can possibly add endowment to an already-full plate, perhaps you can learn from our experience. Some suggestions:

  1. Either hire someone as Endowment Director or free up a staff member to assume this leadership role. If you don’t, the idea of a savings account will be pushed aside for more immediate priorities.
  2. Do not reinvent the wheel. Learn from others’ experiences and model your program after theirs.
  3. Dream big … but be sure to institute a realistic plan. If your plan is overly ambitious, you will waste precious time and resources.
  4. Once your Endowment Director is on board, ensure that he or she works collaboratively with the annual giving  staff You can derive a great deal of synergy that way.
  5. Be advised that it is neither possible nor desirable to forge ahead without a pot of money. These funds will help offset your operating budget, pay for new programs as well as program expansions, provide scholarship assistance, and be available for attracting—and maintaining—superior faculty.

Our communal future is at stake. Jewish day schools cannot afford NOT to add endowment to our plates. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

  • francine shron

    Karil – Thank you for your words of wisdom from someone actively engaged in this work. Endowment is hard work but you have not only shown the field that it is possible but also reinforced the belief in its necessity. May the Agnon School go from strength to strength!