Relationships for life

  • 15th February 2024

Short-termism never works in development. It needs to be structured carefully with a focus on building relationships for the long term. Ian McLean reports on the essential steps to success

In my previous articles, I have urged schools to acknowledge the importance of building relationships as an essential aspect of our development work, but emphasised that this should not halt or slow down actually asking for financial support. In this article, I want to outline the need to maintain and commit to developing relationships and how this approach will minimise the reliance on luck when fundraising is involved. Schools should adopt the following five principles to form the basis of successful and sustained fundraising:

  • Cut out the short-term view, think long-term.
  • Think ‘development’.
  • Focus on building relationships.
  • Minimise the fundraising ‘luck factor’.
  • Nurture your potential and existing donors.

Think long-term

It is understandable with school development pressures, that there is often some urgency and, depending on school finances, this can lead to a demand for funding and fundraising. The short-term view and the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed on likely philanthropic support can bring disappointment, especially if development has not been integrated into the culture of the school ethos. We need to think long-term, and establish development and philanthropy as part of the school’s culture. At the same time, be aware of the potential support that is already willing and available.

Development is a long-term process and will not survive with a short-term approach which creates expectations that may not be possible. However, the common nature of transiency within international schools often means that relationships can be quickly formed, but lost equally as soon. Judgement is required.

Think development

There’s a misconception that development is another name for fundraising – not so. An effective development office with sustained fundraising will integrate these three aspects:

  • Constituency relations.
  • Communications
  • A broad mix of philanthropic fundraising including regular giving (building a culture), bequests, major gifts and events.

Fundraising will only be sustained and successful if these elements are working together. I recall a highly respected head naively suggesting that my development office should not worry about alumni relations and should just raise money. For someone so experienced in his field, it was a concern that that this approach may have impacted on other less experienced heads.

Build relationships

Whether it is the head, the board, the development council or the development staff, there should be a consistent focus on identifying and engaging with individuals within the school community who may have an interest and ability to be leaders, significant donors or supporters of development in any other way. We know that people respond to people and often that a relationship is formed because of peer connections, so it may not necessarily be that the development office is best placed to nurture a specific relationship. These individuals will usually have an immediate link with the school, perhaps as a parent or an alumnus but it is possible that there is a corporate link or a historical association with the school that can be reactivated and that could have a transformational effect on a specific project.

Schools should engage with a variety of people to gain support in different ways, including offering a range of fundraising opportunities.

As well as a direct relationship with the head, governors, and development council, the development office would be wise to develop a close association internally with the senior leadership team, finance office, the head’s PA, the IT department, the staff room, main reception and everyone else.

Externally, schools must be directly involved in managing the alumni relations activity. The days of past pupil associations’ being effective in a tangible way are gone, while the relationship former pupils maintain is with the school and with each other, especially through social media. The school, properly resourced through a development office, is best placed to manage and monitor this.

I have been bemused by the expectations of some heads and board members who believe that being a former pupil is sufficient a connection, to simply see them as a cash cow. They won’t like it and so won’t respond, unless a long-term approach of establishing and developing relationships is in place.

Needless to say, the ongoing attention and stewardship of corporate and industry connections, past and current donors, potential donors, the alumni association, key parents and even past faculty is an essential aspect of successful development.

Minimise the need for luck

I have experienced the lucky fundraising break on numerous occasions, but they have been unexpected and unplanned. This is not the basis of a sustained development programme and we must treat these as being good luck when they come along. Schools do not have individuals queueing at the door ready to donate. The consistent relationship-building activity that underpins all development work must be the basis of the strategy. Our schools have quite defined and often small constituencies, especially when we consider that a significant percentage will never be inclined to support our fundraising efforts. Without close associations, relationships or a sense of involvement and commitment, success will be based on luck.

I often ask: “Why would you donate to any organisation?” The answer tells you what you need to know.

Nurture donors and friends

So, what can we do to nurture relationships? What should we be doing to develop these relationships that will pay dividends one day? It will naturally vary depending on many factors, but some suggestions that continually provide the feelgood factor include:

  • Regular thank-yous.
  • Visits to the school.
  • Annual gathering of donors.
  • Invitations to special school events.
  • Asking for advice.
  • Sharing plans.
  • Reports and updates.
  • Involving friends and donors in school life through lectures, career advice, work experience, committees etc.

Ian McLean works independently with a variety of schools in the UK and Europe.

Ian McLean

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