How senior leaders can help support a thriving fundraising programme

Debra Price, Head of Philanthropy, Shares her INSIGHT OF the important role senior leaders have in supporting a thriving fundraising programme.

Development and fundraising professionals can do a great deal to create a thriving fundraising programme, but arguably school leaders can do far more.  Heads, bursars and governors all have the power to help create an environment in which development and fundraising programmes can go from strength to strength.  Equally, unwittingly, senior leaders can also create an environment in which it is not possible for development to thrive.




Schools are very well versed in the rigours of whole school inspections.  Senior leadership teams have a clear understanding of inspection criteria, how to prepare, monitor, reflect and improve.  But helping a school’s development operation  takes most school leaders into unfamiliar territory.  It also poses some interesting questions:

  • What can heads, bursars and governors do to help ensure the success of their development staff?  What shouldn’t they do?
  • What conditions are necessary to build thriving fundraising programmes?

Arguably, the bedrock for fundraising success is formed from whole school strategic direction and real stakeholder engagement.  Whilst development professionals can bring hands-on fundraising know-how, only a school’s most senior leaders can create whole school strategic direction and a true culture of stakeholder engagement.

Successful fundraising depends on a whole school development strategy and strategy starts at the top.  Whilst the Head is likely to be architect-in-chief of the whole school development plan, the plan can’t proceed without the full backing and approval of the governing body.  Fundraisers can’t fundraise without a clear sense of direction and time-frame.  In terms of achieving fundraising success, much depends on a school having its own clear school development plan; a clear strategy for short, medium and long-term sustainability and improvement.  Without this clarity of intent even the best fundraiser will be unable to show potential supporters why their gift matters.  Simply declaring a need for money is not sufficient to support a fundraising strategy.

Often governing bodies look to fundraisers for fundraising leadership, whilst the fundraisers look to their school’s leadership for clear direction.  Problems arise when each side is waiting for the other to act first.  Fundraising success is likely to rest heavily upon a school’s ability to synthesise clarity of purpose and intent (as identified by the Head and endorsed by governors) with a clear case for donor support (drafted by the development team, a cogent narrative of exactly why a school needs financial support and the transformational impact of fundraising support).  This collaborative team approach may be new to some schools, but is a key factor in getting the very best out of your development operation.

Creating a culture of stakeholder engagement depends on a real desire to listen and engage.

Many schools are saying, ‘we have done all our friend-raising…’  But have they really?   




Friend-raising has become a very familiar term in respect of school fundraising; the idea that you first need to befriend stakeholder groups as a prequel to trying to raise money from them.  But the notion of friend-raising is often misunderstood.  Whilst engaging alumni and parents in school social events will undoubtedly help create good-will, in truth, these activities alone are unlikely to result in potential supporters giving you money.  Meaningful ‘friend-raising’ means listening to, understanding, and reacting to your ‘friends’ and being aware of their concerns and perceptions.  With this understanding you can talk to their concerns, hopes and aspirations for your school.  Social events become far more than a ‘feel good’ glass of wine, and instead become an opportunity for senior leaders to communicate to stakeholders in a meaningful way about those areas of school life that parents and alumni care about most.

Friend-raising certainly is an essential prequel to asking for £ support – but it needs to be more than puddle deep.  Meaningful friend-raising means getting to know your community, ideally through some kind of stakeholder research.   Traversing from friend-raising to winning fundraising gifts from your parents and alumni needs careful understanding of their attitudes and perceptions, both towards your school, as well as the factors that influence their own philanthropic choices.

Having said that stakeholder engagement is key – take care.  Beware of overloading your development team with an events and communications programme that leaves no time for donor contact.  In schools new to fundraising there is often a tendency to underestimate the time involved in developing, securing gifts from, and maintaining a pipe-line of donor supporters.  It can be tempting to load up the development team with a full programme of parent and alumni events and communications leaving little or no time for donor contact and donor solicitation.  Given that events and communications are time sensitive, invariably it is time with the potential donors that gets squeezed out.

So when you are reflecting on how your school’s fundraising can be improved, start with the basics that only senior leaders can truly deliver.

Debra Price
Head of Philanthropy

For more information about how to review your school’s development, fundraising and alumni relations activities, contact:

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