Plan fundraising campaigns

  • 1st July 2024

Ian McLean advises conducting a thorough feasibility study before undergoing a major project to raise funds for your school


The decision to launch a fundraising campaign might be based purely on immediate needs or wishes of the school with little thought or preparation being given as to how the money will be raised and, most importantly, from whom. Successful fundraising campaigns will typically show the following traits:

  • An inspirational and aspirational case for support, not fundraising out of desperation.
  • Committed, enthusiastic and respected leadership.
  • Strong financial management.
  • An engaged and supportive parent, alumni and corporate community.
  • A willing group of volunteers.
  • Leaders of fundraising who are setting an example.
  • A history of fundraising and a culture of asking within the school.
  • Support within the school for the project(s) for which the funds need to be raised.
  • An effective communications plan.
  • The school is listening to its community and is mindful of areas of concern.
  • The development office is well resourced to administer a major campaign.

If your school cannot say a positive “yes” to these, the likelihood of success is greatly reduced. It would then largely depend on good luck but often, with there being only one chance for success, we want to minimise the luck factor.

Choose your targets

Identifying potential donors, possible leaders and understanding the perceptions and likely support levels from within the school community can be guesswork. However, more precise knowledge and an understanding of the school community and its attitudes to fundraising is obtained by undertaking a feasibility study in advance of the campaign. The study will provide answers to many of the above (often) unknowns and enable the planning and preparation to be undertaken with the support of key members of the school community.

More specifically, a feasibility study will aim to provide the reassurance and a level of confidence that the school is ready to proceed with a major campaign. This is vital if fundraising is a necessity in the funding mix for the development projects. It is important that the funding sources are stated so that potential major contributors in particular see and understand the financial picture and therefore the need for fundraising. A feasibility study will assess and evaluate:

  • The school community’s perception of the importance of the need(s) for which the money is to be raised.
  • How people regard the school’s leadership and what impact that may have on fundraising.
  • The level of support that is possible and therefore the viability of a campaign and what is a realistic fundraising target.
  • What external factors might affect the campaign.
  • The readiness, interest and the personal commitment of the board of governors and other key friends who would ideally assist with the development of cultivation strategies that might be used leading up to and throughout the campaign.
  • The study will identify potential leaders, potential major donors and effective volunteers.
  • The feelings, both positive and negative, about the institution and its mission and uncover potential problems.
  • The internal resources available for the campaign and the preparedness for the institution to undertake it.

Importantly, a feasibility study is an effective cultivation and process for key members of the constituency. It educates prospective donors and friends regarding the levels of giving expected in the campaign and should (if positive) provide a strong structure for the campaign. It largely determines the school’s readiness to proceed.

Will the study actually secure donations?

When conducted by an outside agency, the study will research, gather opinions and impressions and determine strategy – not solicit contributions. The consultant or agency does not have the in-depth knowledge of the institution, and is not a peer volunteer so is not the right or most appropriate person to solicit gifts. People give to causes or projects promoted by people they know and trust.

The study is to determine the readiness and infrastructure required to mount a successful fundraising campaign. It is not the time to ask for a donation but is often the first step in engaging potential donors.

What if the study results are disappointing?

On receiving the findings of the study, it could reveal for example, that:

  • The proposed project is not something for which the community perceives is a real need or is willing to support, or the community doesn’t believe that the institution should take on the project even though it is worthwhile.
  • Campaigns are being conducted by other institutions that have a conflict and are perceived to have higher priority.
  • You will not be able to attract the quality of campaign leadership or lead donations to set the standard of giving, or sufficient volunteers.
  • You will not be able to raise the money you need in the time frame of the campaign.
  • The institution needs to do specific things to get its house in order before undertaking the campaign.

A careful decision is then required.

Have a plan

It’s a dangerous risk to alienate people important to the institution by ignoring the study’s recommendations. If the study results are not what was hoped for, the results should not be hidden. The more negative the results, the more important to heed the recommendations.

It is better to not start a campaign even if it means postponing the project, than to begin a campaign that fails. A failed campaign will reflect negatively on the campaign leadership, volunteers, the board, the staff and the institution’s image, and make it harder for future campaigns to succeed. People give to organisations they perceive to be competent and volunteer leadership is drawn to those perceived to be winners.

The study is about whether the time is right to act now, so there should be an immediate plan of action after the results of the study and not a long time lapse.


Ian McLean is an independent development consultant.

Ian McLean

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