Fundraising and philanthropy

Written by: Peter Spence | Published:
Image: iStock

Professional fundraiser Peter Spence draws on lessons from the independent sector to offer state schools some advice on developing alumni networks and longer-term fundraising and philanthropy

This is not an easy time to be a headteacher. Constantly changing legislation, the challenge of academisation, alterations to GCSEs and A levels, all these new initiatives to absorb while ensuring pupils have the best possible start in life – and all of this against a background of declining resources.

Yet headteachers also have greater freedom to launch new initiatives than in the past. Many heads are attempting to deal with the shortage of funds by encouraging parents to launch fundraising events and activities, and often these are very successful. Yet they remain fairly limited in scale.

Perhaps it is time to consider taking academic fundraising in schools to the next level. Development operations, as they are known, have long been essential features of American schools and universities and more recently virtually every university in the UK has done the same.

Within the past decade, most independent schools have also established development programmes with similar degrees of success. In my former role as director of external relations at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (HABS) in Elstree, I helped to raise in excess of £5 million in gifts and pledges within five years. When I was appointed, the school had no database of its alumni – much like many state schools currently.

Sceptics might note that independent schools will likely have wealthier parents and alumni than state schools. Yet there are many successful people who have either gone through the state school system themselves, or have placed their own children in these schools. Furthermore, state schools are much better placed when it comes to approaching grant-making trusts or seeking corporate support and sponsorship.

With this in mind, opportunities abound for state schools to set up their own development operations. So what are the components of a successful development programme that can provide not only a predictable new income stream for your school, but also inspire your entire community to become active supporters of your mission?

A case for support

A headteacher must articulate a clear understanding of the school’s background, where it is now, and what it aspires to be into the future. This aspiration must be prepared in consultation with its key potential donors, and offers a vision that is motivational and distinctive from other schools.

At HABS, we established a new brand identity in consultation with current and past pupils and parents (and staff), leading to five clear branding propositions that shaped our external communications and a strap-line “Nurturing Excellence”.

Then, in a series of discussions with our wealthiest potential donors, we crafted a fundraising strategy which extended the brand into the future. These potential donors made it clear they had no intention of funding for capital costs or for the ordinary running costs of the school. Instead, they wanted, to extend the educational provision beyond the classroom.

The outcome was a series of donations to support an indoor cricket centre, an outdoor nature trail, and artists, scientists and writers in residence (among many other initiatives). The funds we received did not have a direct impact on the school budget, but they transformed the educational experience.

Second, these individuals were keen to ensure that the meritocracy which had been a key feature of life at HABS was sustained. The only way to ensure this was to offer sufficient funding so that boys with nothing but sheer academic ability could opt to join.

This required not only funds for fee remission, but also to purchase school uniforms, meals, coach trips, instruments, etc. After several years, the Foundation Scholar Programme has proved hugely successful, with the boys offered places on this basis thriving.

Furthermore, the programme was so consistent with the school’s ethos that gifts flowed in from the most extraordinary sources. An unsolicited donation of £200,000 came from a family trust run by grandparents of a child at the school.

We were successful because we crafted a case for support in partnership with our wider community that reflected their and our aspirations for the future. Your case for support will be different, but will be no less compelling if articulated carefully.

A reciprocal community

At the start of every academic year, the head at HABS welcomed new parents to the school. I then took the stage, and noted that every member of the school community shared one aspiration – to offer every child the best possible start in life.

I stated that our staff would do all that they could, but that the wider community of parents, former parents and former students could also assist by offering career and university mentoring, work experience placements, talks and activities, and of course philanthropic gifts.

We ensured that parents were in attendance at open days, and encouraged potential parents to engage with them. We used our network of parents and old boys to help in marketing and media engagement, and as a result had a clear oversight of what was being said on the street about us.

As our database grew, we were able to offer a growing number of alumni reunions and events, allowing our former students to re-engage with their school and to offer their own assistance, both voluntary and financial.

Donor stewardship

Strategies should be in place to ensure that donors can give in a variety of ways: cheque, direct debit, online, etc. I know of a few institutions where donations can only be made by cheque. As I have no idea where my chequebook is, this will automatically end my likelihood of making a donation. Ensure that donors can give in the way and at the time appropriate to them.

Even more importantly, make sure that effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that every donor is stewarded effectively and proportionately to the value of their donation.

If your school receives a transformational gift, then that person should be thanked by phone (if not actually in person) by the head and the chair of the board.

Every gift must be used to the ends intended by the donor, and regular communications should be maintained with the donor to thank them for their generous assistance.

It is a truism of professional fundraising that a first gift is exactly that; if the donor is treated with respect, if their wishes are observed, and if they are stewarded appropriately, they will give again, probably in greater amounts, and generally with fewer restrictions.

At HABS, our first transformational gift came from an old boy who offered £75,000. We ensured that I, the head and the chair of governors thanked him personally.

We invited him and his wife to our major events, and we regularly updated him with the outcome of his donation. As time has gone by he has continued to give in growing sums, and he has pledged a six figure gift in his will. He was delighted that we helped him to find a way to transform lives by his philanthropy.

A culture of celebration

Development is not begging, it offers ways for those with the means to invest their funds in aspirations that they endorse and wish to progress. Donations are to be celebrated as demonstrable proof that your community endorses your institution’s aspirations for the future.

Momentum is everything. Mobilise your communications to reinforce the sense that the number of donors and the value of their donations is increasing steadily.

Nor is development simply fundraising. Make sure you celebrate the support – financial and other – offered by your wider community. Be sure that your teachers know that their community is working with them. Invite the community and staff to events, speakers and other activities that affirm and celebrate this collaboration.

An effective development operation – if instituted properly and carefully – can transform your school and its wider community. It will take time before the results become evident. But in due course, you and your community will wonder why you waited for so long before taking the first step.

  • Peter Spence is principal consultant at Holistic Educational Marketing and Fundraising. Visit


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