Three things I learned about day schools from Prizmah’s new development survey

In Short

In reviewing this extraordinary data set, it’s clear that there’s good news for day schools.

As a data-informed organization, Prizmah invests considerable time and resources uncovering the trends and best practices in the Jewish day school world. Our newly released Development Pulse Survey Report is the most recent collection of data from the field to help day school leaders and philanthropists make informed decisions that are based on facts and measurable outcomes. From our network of 305 Jewish day schools and yeshivas across North America, we received 118 responses to our survey, representing a diversity of school sizes, geographies, and religious affiliations. In reviewing this extraordinary data set, it’s clear that there’s good news for day schools.

Here are three things I learned about day schools:

  1. The results from this survey portray a shift from reactionary fundraising early in the pandemic to resiliency and future-focused philanthropy. 

In the early days of the pandemic, many Jewish communal organizations went into crisis mode. How will we meet our mission at a six-foot distance? What will it take to ensure that we can continue to serve the families who rely on us? In day schools in particular, this meant a huge investment in technology and infrastructure to be able to serve students in virtual classrooms and socially-distanced in-person classrooms. The immediate need to upgrade technology, refurbish air filtration systems, invest in cleaning and maintenance staff, hang plastic dividers, and build outdoor learning environments seemed overwhelming. But with the support of generous donors, emergency resources, and reserves, schools were able to put in place the systems necessary to continue the teaching and learning. In fact, for many, day schools became hallmarks of successful pandemic experiences, thinking creatively to ensure that their missions were met even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Now, as we move beyond the acute stresses and change created by the pandemic, schools feel buoyed by the relationships they created in their crisis mode. Rather than an emergency need, schools are talking to their communities about the kinds of support that will help them serve their students in the long-term, and endowment funds are finding their way to the top of that priority list. Seventy-eight percent of respondents, representing 92 schools, reported that their school has an endowment fund. Of the 27 schools that reported not having an endowment, nearly 50% are planning to launch an endowment campaign in the next five years, while an additional 41% are interested in doing so in the future.

Endowment valuations have increased significantly from last year. This is the result of both strong stock market performance and schools securing additional endowment funds. Reporting schools raised approximately $26,638,000 in new endowment gifts in FY21*, gifts which fund categories like scholarships for families, salaries and professional development for faculty, technology, innovation, expanded learning programs, and school facilities upkeep. Endowment funds are the very definition of future-focused philanthropy;like retirement funds, an investment in the present ensures that long-term planning is supported and that the financial health of schools is on track.

  1. Donors are maintaining (if not increasing) their gifts to schools, helping schools to more confidently raise funds. 

There are many models through which schools set their budgeted income for fundraising each year. Throughout the pandemic, development professionals worked together through weekly meet-ups facilitated by Prizmah to learn from and with each other in setting metrics and building campaign plans. What could we expect in such an unpredictable year? Could schools rely on donors to come out of the woodwork? Could they build new relationships or expand on existing ones if they couldn’t meet in person?

In the end, more than half of schools reported increasing their annual campaign goals from FY21* to FY22*. Thirty percent of schools kept their goal at the same level as FY21 and 14%, representing 17 schools, decreased their goal. When asked this question last year, 43% of schools had reported decreasing their annual campaign goal from FY20* to FY21*. It seems that after choosing the safest path for school sustainability in a turbulent FY21*, schools were able to use the lessons they learned and the successes they modeled to lean into their fundraising for FY22*.

Eighty-one percent of respondents reported that they project their schools will meet or exceed FY22* fundraising goals. When comparing responses to this time last year, there is a five percent increase in schools that projected they would meet their fundraising goals. At the same time last year, 20% of schools reported they were unsure if they would meet their fundraising goal, while now only 13% of schools aren’t sure, a decrease of seven percent.

Given the circumstances of the pandemic and the way donors saw schools respond to student need, it wasn’t surprising that just under 75% of respondents reported that parent participation has either remained steady or increased compared to FY21*. A quarter of respondents even indicated that the number of parents participating in their annual campaign has increased by over 10% since the last fiscal year. With a growing base of donors and dollars, development departments are working overtime to strengthen those relationships and build long-term support.

  1. More schools are beginning to think on systems and communal levels to address financial sustainability and affordability.

The affordability of Jewish life is a regular topic of conversation amongst communal leaders. Day schools are better able to tackle affordability and sustainability issues when communities work together to address the holistic needs of families.

A communal endowment fund, defined as an endowment for the benefit of two or more schools in a community, allows families a greater choice in selecting a school that meets the needs of their individual students. At least 25% of schools solicited for and/or received funds from a communal endowment in FY21*. This number may be underrepresented due to how various communities define a communal endowment and how schools attribute their revenue, but that number is growing. Schools that reported being part of a communal endowment fund are located in nine regions across the United States and Canada.

Beyond the bounds of the survey, Prizmah is also working with more and more funders and community leaders to design communal affordability models. Be it middle income tuition models or Jewish communal professionals discounts, endowment campaigns or cost savings measures across multiple schools, more and more voices are being raised to understand the work that’s being done across North America that could address some of day schools’—and the Jewish community’s—most pressing needs.

With these learnings in hand, along with the findings from Prizmah’s most recent Enrollment Pulse Survey Report, it’s fair to say that Jewish day schools are trending positive. Through growth in admissions and development and continued focus on meeting the needs of the whole student in the classroom and beyond, day schools have proven that a period of challenge and can indeed lead to a strengthening of the Jewish future. 

*Throughout the report we use the abbreviation FY to refer to the 12-month period of the school fiscal year.

Hannah Strasser Olson is senior vice president of development at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.