The money-go-round

  • 5th April 2024

Ian McLean explains how a sustained school development programme is more than just fundraising


Independent schools around the world have gradually embraced the development (or advancement) function as an essential component of school administration. While this has been well-established and accepted in the US for decades, many schools in other parts of the world are only just beginning to embrace the development function; more independent international schools are realising the benefits of a sustained development programme.

What is development?

The development office should advance the aims and ethos of the school it represents. It can achieve this by strengthening the ties between the school and its community, which should include alumni and parents (prospective, current and former). A variety of activities will support this aim, such as career networking groups, reunions, regional and special interest events and fundraising. Often in partnership with the alumni society, the development office should offer a range of opportunities for the community to give back to the school and to connect with one another.

Do we need it?

For many international schools, a development office may seem unnecessary, but others that have established one are reaping the benefits of closer relationships with alumni and families. These benefits include in governance, recruitment, volunteer support and, of course, fundraising for capital projects or bursaries and scholarships.

The desire to establish a development office and appoint a development director is often motivated by the need for fundraising for a desired project, or the need to generate a growing scholarship fund. However, there’s much more to the function than simply fundraising, and if treated in isolation, fundraising will be much more difficult to sustain.

The importance of alumni relations

A continuing and varied programme of alumni relations activity must be directly linked to the development office so that relationships are developed with alumni and families who have the potential and inclination to help in both the short- and long-term.

In an international school, this is not as easy, with many members of the school community moving on and often living and working in other parts of the world. However, there are benefits from engaging with those people who are keen to remain a part of the school’s future, as their enthusiasm will build a stronger school community and enhance the reputation of the school. There are numerous examples of this and, from my own experience in the international school setting, the engagement fostered with the alumni of Leysin American School in Switzerland provided the ideal platform for ongoing relationships and support. British boarding schools have developed this aspect enormously over the past decade.

Gaining financial support will often be the highest prized outcome of development work and so when approaching potential major donors, it’s important to remember that their support will also be sought by major charities for a variety of worthwhile causes. Unless the potential donor has maintained a relationship with the school, or had the relationship nurtured, there’s little chance that financial support will be forthcoming.

A fruitful fundraising programme will be one that sits alongside a permanent schedule of relationship-building, which offers a variety of opportunities for members of the school community to engage. The office should have overall responsibility for alumni relations and also be linked to the marketing function.

The fundraising mix

There are three fundamental components to the fundraising mix. Establishing a regular (annual) giving programme should form the basis of a permanent fundraising culture. First, an annual programme will build a culture of both asking and giving, and will over time grow the participation rate and the levels donated. It will provide a mechanism to highlight school needs or desires and identify potential major donors. Reporting results regularly will generate a feeling of achievement and, while there are various ways in which an annual programme can be set up, it is advisable to begin by offering a wishlist of items or small projects that, if achieved, will make an immediate impact on the lives of the students.

Second, and at all times, the activity of the development office should focus on identifying those individuals or corporations that have an affiliation and propensity to support in a considerable way. To elevate these relationships to engagement, research will be required, followed by a strategic approach that will vary in each case. In the years ahead, corporate partnerships will play an increasing role in schools’ relationships with external communities.

The third component is that of deferred gifts or legacies, where provision is made in a will for the school. This element of fundraising will arise, in most cases, from the relationship-building and acts of appreciation over the long term. Many development offices have established a legators’ society, gathered annually for a luncheon.

Key aspects

Aspects essential to the success of a sustained programme include:

  • A whole school development plan, from the head and endorsed by governors, which inspires potential supporters.
  • Donors will need to be assured that the school is financially sound and well managed.
  • Potential donors will invariably require that fundraising is led by those who are respected within the school community and who lead by example.
  • An accurate alumni database.
  • A communications plan that places a strong emphasis on social media tools. This will re-engage former students and capture the younger alumni early on for a long-term association.

Because of the transient nature of students and families in international schools, it’s vital that a culture is developed so that parent-giving is something that is well-understood from the outset. A close relationship between the development and admissions office is vital and, where possible, should link the development director to the marketing and alumni relations role(s). This will pay huge dividends.

By concentrating on building long-term relationships alongside an inspiring school development plan, the funds will flow.


Ian McLean has been a development director at independent, boarding and international schools in the UK, Switzerland and Australia.

Ian McLean

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