Creating a successful development programme

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) – the largest network of girls’ schools in the independent sector and one of the biggest UK charities in its own right – has a proud history of providing thousands of pupils with scholarships and bursaries. Glen Fendley, GDST’s head of development, shares the organisation’s secrets to creating a successful development programme

My team of experienced development specialists at GDST’s head office supports our 24 fee-paying schools and two academies, providing a unique, practical and bespoke resource that accelerates the culture of giving across our network. We also deliver a central fundraising programme that focuses on attracting major gifts from companies and grant-making trusts for our bursary fund.

Supporting schools

Our support to schools includes:

  • Working closely with their development professionals, headteachers, bursars/finance directors, and governing boards to build the foundations of a sustainable development programme;
  • Providing guidance on how to develop philanthropic relationships with their community of alumnae, parents/grandparents, former staff, and others;
  • Offering 1:1 training on developing techniques like ‘making the ask’ or writing regular giving appeals;
  • Ongoing training to foster good practice in database management and ensuring compliance with current fundraising standards and data protection regulations
  • Sharing exemplars of successful fundraising from within and outside our network;
  • Helping our more advanced development offices to introduce programmes that will diversify annual fundraising and grow major gifts income

Whilst we readily acknowledge that all our schools are very different, with their own leadership styles, ethos, traditions and cultures, there are three elements that we focus on to kick-start and drive any development programme:

  1. The active commitment of the school leadership
  2. The production of a written development plan
  3. Investment in a development office

Active commitment of the school leadership

It should come as no surprise that the best performing development offices have the unanimous support and commitment of the school’s headteacher, bursar and governors. The development professional running the office regularly meets with the head teacher and school governing board to discuss progress and they are willing to play an active role in building relationships with potential supporters at events.

We work with schools to build a supportive and collaborative ‘home team’ of stakeholders – which usually includes the head teacher, bursar, a governor and a member of the parents’ association – who can provide strategic guidance, take every opportunity to spread consistent messages throughout the whole school that the work of the development office is pivotal to the future prosperity of the school and publicise and celebrate fundraising successes to help build momentum. Parent association representatives may even mobilise other parents to support the development office with administrative tasks and event organisation.

Producing a written development plan

In our experience the most effective development plans are directly aligned to the school’s overall strategic vision. Donors give when their values, interests and passions are engaged. Where possible, to help position development’s role in achieving the school’s vision, we advise school leadership teams to share their business objectives and strategic vision with the whole school community in creative and interactive ways.

This exercise helps to test which messages and projects resonate most with each group of constituents. Following feedback, it also helps the leadership team to craft better articulations of the vision. Most importantly, for the development office, it highlights which initiatives are likely to attract greater philanthropic support.

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This, in turn, guides the preparation of a considered plan that sets out ambitious but achievable medium-term financial/non-financial goals plus roles and responsibilities outlining how these goals are going to be achieved, within a realistic timescale. Parents, alumni, grandparents, former staff and other friends of the school are all prospective supporters. We work with our schools to build a development programme that engages all groups and presents multiple ways of giving and at all levels. The plan is written by the development office in close consultation with the head teacher, bursar and school governing board. Once approved this working document is reviewed and evaluated regularly by the school’s leadership.

Building relationships and long-term solutions

We work on the principle that it is important that a school and its development office should, initially, invest time, effort and money in building relationships with their potential and future supporters. At first schools do not need new events to promote fundraising campaigns as they can piggy-back on existing major social events in the calendar that already bring constituent groups together. These events are ready-made opportunities to weave in messages about the value and role of development and the difference that successful fundraising makes to the school’s vision.

Investing in a development office is a long-term solution, not a quick fix. Realistic expectations must be established and sufficient time devoted to building up an engagement programme with the whole school community. We believe that, once a development office is established and staffed with a development professional, it could take up to three years to generate a surplus. The head teacher, bursar and governing board are, again, vital in advocating the benefits of the long game for development.

Employing a development professional is at the heart of any successful fundraising programme; s/he is the first point of contact for the fundraising activities and events taking place within the school. The development professional drives the momentum of a dynamic development plan and helps to build a ‘community of goodwill’ that will foster a sustainable culture of philanthropy.

It’s important to note that some of our most effective development professionals didn’t have previous experience in fundraising, but brought with them a range of excellent personal and entrepreneurial transferable skills that help them to excel in the role. Typically, they are also well-matched to the culture and ethos of the school and are willing participants in the school’s extra-curricular activities (an excellent way to increase visibility around campus and get to know the wider community).

 The GDST’s top tips for development success

If we had three takeaways for schools about to establish a development programme, they would be:

  • An actively involved school leadership, co-ordinated by a personable, creative and entrepreneurial development professional is the number one reason why your fundraising will flourish.
  • Everyone is a prospective supporter and fostering long-term relationships with your school community will eventually be rewarded with one-off, regular and legacy gifts.
  • You must have a written plan that maps out how you are going engage with your whole school community and ensure they all have an opportunity to participate in your fundraising campaigns.

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