Establishing a Development Office

There are many subjects on which you might disagree in school life, and it appears from our conversations across the sector with clients – and also the benchmarking findings – that the founding of the development office can be added to that list.

With many schools enduring something of a stop-start relationship with development due to staff and leadership transition, and others slowly embarking on the journey to turn years of ‘friendraising’ into fundraising success, it can be difficult to gauge when a programme actually started (or restarted).

Whilst the benchmarking shows that four years of consistent investment produces what is, arguably, a very acceptable return on investment, time itself is by no means the sole driver of strong fundraising performance.

‘Difficulty managing expectations’ is a phrase we hear regularly from fundraisers about school leadership and from school leadership about governing bodies. This issue can be at its most acute in the early years of a start-up or a re-boot, but considering the crucial components of fundraising success are not always part of that conversation, it can lead to many ‘Groundhog Day’ scenarios.

Let’s start with leadership. Development cannot succeed in a vacuum. If a school intends to generate major gifts (whatever that means to the school in question), then the Head must be involved in cultivating and closing those gifts. The benchmarking couldn’t be clearer in demonstrating that the more time a Head spends on fundraising, the greater the average gift size.

Leadership must also agree what is being fundraised for, how it fits into the vision and strategy of the school, and why philanthropy is required to realise the ambition. Fundraisers can refine and tailor that story, but it must come from the top to be credible. This is the difference between fundraising for ‘need to have’ rather than ‘nice to have’ projects.

Your prospects are at the centre of your fundraising plan. If you don’t understand the financial capacity of your alumni and parents (or worse, make assumptions about it), there is a significant risk of over- or under-estimating what can be raised, which takes us back to the misaligned expectations. Are all the elements of your programme – events, communications, database – being utilised to build a picture of the capacity of your prospective donors and provide a more evidence-based assessment of potential, rather than a finger in the air?

With all of the above in place, you should now have a clearer picture of how your existing resource should be deployed and how any additional resource – if required – should be applied. Develop a genuine understanding of just how much time can be spent on actual fundraising, rather than the necessary complementary and supporting activities, which almost all offices rightly undertake. Look at how you can carve out more time for fundraising. Be ruthless in your assessment of the effectiveness or otherwise of previous and existing activities. Development offices are primarily judged on financial performance, so ensure that the barriers to fundraising are expunged or minimised wherever possible, and understand the impacts of removing those barriers on other areas of school life.

Finally, institute a simple plan or strategy to bring school leadership, governing bodies, fundraisers, and staff onto the same page as far as fundraising is concerned. Be clear on what the development team will and won’t do, what it can and can’t do, and what it should achieve as it seeks to enhance the work of the school.

So, before you start thinking that four years of fundraising is the new 10,000 hours required for excellence, make sure the fundamentals are in place. Otherwise, those four years may be long and disappointing for your school, rather than exciting and transformative.

This article is part of a series providing our analysis and key takeaways from the 2016-2018 Graham-Pelton/IDPE Benchmarking Report. Read other articles or sign-up for our email list to have the latest news on the benchmarking report and other fundraising tips sent straight to your inbox.

All Services

Fundraising Strategy

  • Annual giving
  • Planned giving
  • Principal and major gifts
  • Risk assessment


  • Planning studies
  • Campaign strategy and counsel
  • Campaign assessments and audits
  • Communications
  • Coaching

Attraction and Retention

  • Donor relations
  • Alumni relations
  • Grateful patient programs
  • International scoping
  • Member relations

Organizational Effectiveness

  • Operational assessments
  • Talent assessments and development
  • Training and engagement
  • Interim staffing

Business Intelligence

  • Prospect profiling
  • Database optimization
  • Wealth screening and analysis
  • Fundraising metrics


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