Build a development office

  • 13th October 2023

Establishing external relations can make a critical contribution to a school’s finances. For most schools, though, the question is where to start. Ian McLean sets out the strategy for a successful launch

Why might your school be considering establishing a development office? Often, it’s a short-term view because there’s an immediate need for fundraising. But beware: for members of a school community to give, they need to feel appreciated and involved and, for this reason, a major part of development activity is building relationships, which can take some time.

International schools generally suffer from a transient community, with it being difficult to build a long-term involvement. However, developing a culture of giving (and of asking) through a consistency of development activities, will help to increase awareness and expectations. By highlighting development activity at the outset, new families enter the school with a more informed understanding of the importance of the development office.

Development should be appropriately positioned in the school structure and ethos, with its director being included as part of the senior leadership group. This sends a message both internally and externally that development is considered a crucial aspect of the school and its future.

The development office should integrate three key areas:

• Building relationships with alumni and parents and, ideally, managing the alumni relations programme

• Communications, including social media networks and

• Offering a mix of fundraising opportunities for the internal and external school community to support.

In some schools, the office may be referred to as the office of external relations or the development and alumni relations office.

This is the fundamental tool of operation of a development office: knowing who is in the school community and what they do. There are a number of programmes available with after-sales helpdesks, all designed for precisely the requirements of a fully integrated office. Working in conjunction with social media sites will quickly identify alumni and groups who currently maintain their own networks.

The resources needed to manage and work in a development office will vary according to the level of maturity of the school’s database, its fundraising history and its relationship with former students. If we assume there’s been little engagement with alumni, along with a low level fundraising programme, it’s fair to say that database management will be a high priority and an administrative appointment may be a suitable place to start. There will be a need, however, to develop a strategic direction for the development office, based on supporting the school masterplan. A more senior appointment should then follow and, as fundraising becomes integrated with a more productive alumni programme, additional staff may be needed as well.

Engaging the advice of outside counsel in this area will help to provide guidance, direction and a purpose.

Depending on the availability of suitable space, it’s preferable to have the development office based at the front or central area of the school so the development staff are fully aware of visitors, either current or potential families or alumni. It should also be welcoming, comfortable and be near both the principal’s office and admissions office for ease of access.

If there is already an active alumni association, that’s helpful because the development office should become directly linked, offering support and sharing resources. Hopefully, the association will support the development office. If there’s no formal association, however, the development office should aim to create an interesting and varied programme of activity to encourage involvement and interest in the school. Social media sites are a vital part of an effective alumni relations programme. A fully operational development office will also be able to identify and nurture those current families who show interest in helping the school in whichever way they can. Parents often provide a willing and enthusiastic resource for development activity.

Every school community has individuals with a degree of influence and respect. This may be through personal achievement or their position or success in business or profession. Identifying a group of key individuals with expertise, enthusiasm and influence might form the nucleus of a development council that helps steer ongoing activities and sets an example to others. Business leaders who have a direct connection with the school will be obvious members of a development council.

As it engages in a variety of ways with members of the school community, the development office will be looking to identify, then nurture, those individuals who have the interest and potential to offer support.

At the same time, with a structure in place, and the readiness to work with and nurture key individuals, the school must be well prepared with a development plan that is inspirational and worthy of support. Any goals for fundraising should be ambitious but also realistic.

When everything else is in place with an engaged school community, an effective fundraising programme can be enabled to be successful. The aim is to develop a sustained programme that results in regular gifts from a growing number of people, mixed with major levels of support. In many international schools, the strength of relationships with companies is vital in securing significant levels of funding support.

It’s inevitable that there will be a cost to establishing a development office. In the early phases, there will be little return, but development is a permanent and long-term operation that over time will see sustained benefits. It must be viewed as an investment and an essential aspect of the school’s administration and not a short-term fix. As a rule of thumb, the first year will be pure cost, the second year will pay for itself, then the third year will cover all previous costs and begin to make a contribution to the school’s finances. Some school leaders expect a faster return, but the cultivation process necessitates a longer term and patient approach.

From the start, it’s important to:
• Agree on realistic expectations
• Resource the office sufficiently
• Identify a leadership group to lead by example
• Create a development master plan for the school that will inspire potential supporters and investors
• Build an effective alumni and parent relations programme
• Concentrate on building relationships with key individuals
• Offer a variety of fundraising opportunities that add real value and are not based on desperation and
• Be ambitious and committed to success.

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

The latest benchmarking report from Independent Development Professionals in Education (IDPE) and the fundraising consultants, Gifted Philanthropy, is the largest and most comprehensive study of schools’ fundraising and engagement activity in the UK, demonstrating the impact of successful development programmes in driving community engagement and philanthropic support.

In all, 215 schools took part (190 independent, 25 state). The survey covered 2018 to 2021.

Key findings of the report:
• Total philanthropic income from development activity: £425 million
• 66% comes from major gifts
• Average return on investment: 3.6:1 by years 4-5
• There is a direct correlation between the age of the development office and return on investment
• It takes time to build relationships and create trust before you can reach your targets
• There has been a significant rise in fundraising for bursaries (66% in 2018, 85% in 2021)
• All types of schools can achieve fundraising success.

The report can be ordered from IDPE at:

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