Strong leadership allows Rice Memorial High School to fundraise through pandemic


COVID-19 was officially deemed a pandemic on March 11, 2020. That day all aspects of American life began retreating from the public square, exemplified by a 1,200-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a plunge that ended an 11-year bull market.

A week later, on March 18, the leadership at Rice Memorial High School in Burlington, Vermont decided to continue their fundraising campaign.

Similar projects across the country were paused out of concern for the impending social and economic fallout. But Rice Memorial’s leaders went on to run a successful campaign thanks to their vision, skill and boldness.

“We had done so well leading up to that point and we had confidence in the case we were making to our donors,” said Christy Bahrenburg, Director of Advancement and Communications at Rice. “We didn’t want to assume how people would respond. We simply continued to demonstrate the need.”

The initial need for the $4.7-million campaign, Investing in Our Legacy, was three-fold: reduce a lingering seven-figure debt, bolster an endowment for tuition assistance and renovate some of its facilities. But with the pandemic, Bahrenburg and Rice principal, Lisa Lorenz, understood that pushing the campaign to success would require a new approach.

“Rice had a very devoted team, from the leadership to the committee, and everyone stayed on the same page,” said Mike Blum, the Steier Group client service director overseeing the campaign. “They just really focused on re-strategizing in order to see the campaign through.”

The first decision Rice made was to dovetail the Annual Fund goal of $625,000 with Investing in Our Legacy. Initially, the Annual Fund goal was slated to be in addition to the campaign total.

The focus on debt reduction and the tuition assistance endowment remained, given they were immediate needs. Rice leaders then reviewed the list of renovation projects and deemed the kitchen was a priority.

“Much of our kitchen equipment was jerry-rigged and on the cusp of failure at which point, we would be challenged to continue to feed our students, as well as those from two of our partner schools,” Bahrenburg said.

Recalibrating the goals gave the campaign nuance that addressed a new reality while also making the fundraising effort donor centric.

“There wasn’t anyone who reached out and told us we would be making a mistake to proceed,” Bahrenburg said. “We did our best to communicate clearly with our community, especially those we knew were being affected the most. Our message to them was that we understood their challenges, and they were appreciative of our flexibility.”

Blum thinks Rice put forth a textbook response.

“What they did is a perfect case study of how to fundraise during a crisis,” he said. “They redefined their goals, they reached out to their donors, and were transparent about their intent to move forward.”

Bahrenburg is grateful for how the Rice community responded.

“We have raised half of our tuition assistance endowment goal,” she said. “We also applied for and received a federal grant to replace all the earmarked kitchen equipment. By the end of April, those improvements should be complete.”

And the debt reduction goal? Check.

“We have officially satisfied our primary goal of reducing our debt, paying off a pending loan payment early and saving ourselves thousands of dollars,” Bahrenburg said.

VIEW ALL STEIER TIPS POSTS