Beyond hope

  • 16th October 2023

Development should be at the heart of a school’s central management function, but it’s no good just wishing and hoping for a lucky financial return. Ian McLean reports

The school development office is much more than simply a fundraising office and its performance should be judged accordingly. Development is not fundraising. Development is a strategic operation of relationships, communication and fundraising – in that order. It means the role of the development office is integral to the school and is more diverse than some believe as it sits at the hub of the school’s external relations.

Successful school development is based on building relationships primarily with parents and former students. Going deeper than this, however, is the importance of building and maintaining relationships with existing and potential donors, local community and businesses, and those individuals who have the interest, influence and enthusiasm to help in other ways.

The past year or two has been difficult for school development offices in the UK and it has cemented the need to base development and fundraising on relationship-building. Some schools have successfully begun appeals during this time, mainly for support of the school’s bursary provision and, in particular, for hardship cases which have developed into a more engaged relationship with alumni online.

Warm relationships are built on personal contacts, and also on a sense of engagement with the ‘school community’, alongside a communications strategy that keeps the school community well informed about the school, its progress and its plans. Major donors expect complete transparency both on the vision and planning and the financial picture before making any major financial commitment. This is highlighted regularly by potential donors as a key ingredient of proper engagement.

The role of development and fundraising is much more widely accepted when the development office is observed as the hub of parent and alumni relationships and a source of regular communication and event management. To keep the development office completely separate from an alumni office or the marketing department has the potential to delay the effectiveness of development efforts.

However, the past does not equal the future. Just because the school has established contact with former students, and research may show they have the capacity to help, it shouldn’t assume a level of support, contrary sometimes to the expectations of those in leadership positions whose focus may simply be the ‘bottom line’ or ‘where is the money going to come from?’. The development and nurturing of relationships through individual connections and event activity is essential when support is not obvious.

Schools today benefit from the growth of development activity and fundraising within the education sector generally, with many families aware and accepting of similar activity and approaches from other schools and universities with whom they may be associated. Integrating fundraising with alumni relations activity becomes a more natural process after a period of genuine ‘friend-raising’ activity. The development office must be actively engaged and spend time meeting people, with the brokering of key relationships often being a measure of successful development work.

The need for funds is naturally a major reason why a development office is established. In the past, a school would simply launch a fundraising campaign – usually guided by an expensive consultancy firm – with results often falling way below fundraising expectations. Then in the early 2000s schools began to see the benefit of a development office introducing regular fundraising alongside extensive engagement activity. Those schools that began this activity with a full understanding of the realistic time involved, have reaped enormous benefits over the past 20 years while, unfortunately, there are many stop-start examples where unrealistic expectations and time frames have been placed on the development office in a culture where asking for money was seen as crass, but yet expected to be carried out by a junior or inexperienced development officer.

It’s no wonder these schools have not believed in development and the long- term approach when the motive was purely for short-term gain. The urgent need or desire to have another or an improved facility outweighed the realistic position and culture at that school at that time.

In every school, not many individuals or families can provide a transformational level of support, so building a fundraising culture over time, providing opportunities for the wider school community to contribute in some way, is the foundation for ongoing and growing levels of fundraising support. Overall, the basis of a broad fundraising mix should include a combination of seeking major gifts, having a regular giving programme, promoting legacies as a way of support, as well as running an engaging programme of events.

Planning for an inevitable major fundraising campaign takes time, in particular to ensure its readiness to gain the support and acceptance of the plans that require a fundraising component. This does not necessarily come easily and is often only assured by conducting a feasibility study among key and influential individuals – those who have the ability, enthusiasm and influence to make a difference. The outcome of such an independently conducted study can act as an insurance policy prior to launching such a campaign – it minimises the fundraising ‘hope’ factor.

The role of the head and governors working with the development office and a volunteer development advisory group is fundamental to the success of major level fundraising. Peer-to-peer giving especially, when the volunteer is also a donor, creates a powerful message to potential donors. The work of the development office in nurturing and guiding the strategy and relationships makes for an effective ongoing campaign and sustained levels of support.

Ian McLean was a development director for 24 years, having worked at independent, boarding and international schools in Australia, the UK and continental Europe. He is now in his eleventh year as an independent consultant.

Ian McLean

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