10/05/2018 by John Clark |

The Director of Development as Rainmaker: The Myth Examined

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Too often, an independent school’s embrace of the development function is accompanied by the hope — usually harbored by the Head of School and/or certain board members — that the “right person” can immediately land major gifts and provide necessary voluntary support to meet the needs of the operating budget and build the endowment.

If only the task were that easy.

Usually such hopes reside in institutions that have had a sputtering experience with fundraising, marked by numerous fits and starts, and more of the former than the latter. These schools need the infusion of cash or perhaps a new facility to support or enhance their programs or to increase enrollment. But they are often looking to the wrong person, or people, to make the necessary change in institutional attitudes and behaviors toward fundraising that will ensure success.

Asking Key Questions

If a school needs to up its development game, the leadership team and trustees need to ask themselves a few key questions. Indeed, these questions should be asked and answered by schools in any stage of the process to redefine or enhance their development functions:

  • Do you have people on your Board of Trustees with the financial capacity to effect change and inspire others to join them in helping your institution realize its fundraising goals? If not, how effective is your Committee on Trustees in identifying and bringing forward fresh names of people who want and can make a difference at your institution? Do you have term limits? Does everyone on the board understand what is expected of him or her financially? Does everyone know his or her own role in cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding major donors? Do you have a fully functioning Development Committee that is concentrating on high-end donors, not the nitty-gritty of the Annual Fund? Finally, does your Board Chair and Head of School have a solid relationship grounded in trust and support?
  • Is your fundraising database in good shape? Do you have up-to-date contact information for each constituent, entered consistently and according to certain protocols? Does your constituent information include email addresses, giving information, and relationships to the school and to other constituents? Do you have someone in the development office whose primary task is ongoing prospect research? Do you know who attended, say, your latest New York reception or last June’s reunion, and are you capturing that information on your database?
  • Do you have gift policies in place? Have you set minimum levels for gifts to the endowment? Have you determined what constitutes a major gift at your organization (separate from annual support)? Have you identified your major gift donors? Do you have good records of historical giving to your school?
  • Are you engaging key constituents effectively with meaningful cultivation and events that bring them closer to your institution and reveal their individual interests? How are you following up with these individuals after the engagement? What is the next step with each? Who are the right people to maintain each relationship?
  • Is your Annual Fund growing? Do you have a definition of a major gift for the Annual Fund (as opposed to a major gift for a capital campaign or for endowment)? Is at least 75% of your Annual Fund total coming from these major gift donors ($1,000-plus)? Is everyone being solicited for a specific gift amount? Are you soliciting top down (the board first) and inside out (faculty, then other constituencies)? Are you stressing the importance of the Annual Fund enough?
  • Does your director of development (DOD) have a good working relationship with the Head of School? Does the DOD have free and easy access to board members and is she or he encouraged to establish those relationships? Is your DOD a presence at board meetings?

This flurry of questions underscores the larger message; namely, that a successful, sustained development program requires the conviction, understanding and involvement of a lot of people, and that the entire effort should be viewed as a long game that will take time to reach maturity. The queries also make it clear that an institution needs to have the right leaders, team and structure in place to create the system for successful fundraising, then sustain and refine the process over time.

If you answered no to more than a couple of the questions, then your fundraising approach needs work.

The Shape of Success

If your school relies solely on the development director, or even a development team, to do all the fundraising work, your efforts are bound to sputter. Fundraising success starts at the top with the school’s board and extends all the way down through the Head of School, administration, faculty, parents and alumni, even to the seniors who are about to graduate and, thus, join the alumni and widen the list of donors over time. A concern for and commitment to giving — a cultural understanding of the need for giving to sustain institutional excellence — needs to be understood and supported across all departments and constituents.

At the board level, fundraising success means, first and foremost, that board members have a clearly defined role in fundraising. Much of the work starts with the Committee on Trustees. Among other considerations the committee has for new board members, it must consider an individual’s philanthropic capacity as a key factor. At the same time, all board members must understand their role in both supporting the school financially and in helping to identify, cultivate, solicit and steward major donors. The roles may vary among trustees and shift year to year — and board members on the Development Committee will be more focused on fundraising than other trustees. The key, however, is that all understand and remain committed to the school’s development goals and their respective roles to help achieve them. Finally, the board and head, in addition to having a strong relationship grounded in trust and support, must be of one mind about the school’s financial needs and goals.

For the Head of School, success essentially entails being a steady advocate for the fundraising efforts. Such advocacy requires having a strong relationship with the Board Chair in order to work well with the board on setting and achieving funding goals. It means having a good relationship with the director of development; the two must be in constant communications about the funding goals and the steps needed to achieve them. Overall, it means being the number one spokesperson for the school — the institution’s chief evangelist, as it were — helping to create the necessary culture of engagement among the various constituencies that will help stimulate financial support. Many heads of school think they must be part of every major solicitation. That is a fallacy. More important is having the right person or team (ideally no larger than two) engaging and soliciting a donor. That could be the Head of School, chair of the board, a trustee, the director of development, a major donor or a faculty member — in various combinations. Determining the right approach to each donor is a result of effective Development Committee meetings. And of course, there will be some donors who will insist to be seen by the head, no matter what.

In the development office, success requires good leadership and proper staffing. There’s nothing wrong with having a rainmaker as your director of development, but it’s more important that this person know how to shape, lead and support a well-functioning development office year to year. Such an office requires clear, detailed procedures and policies. At the core, successful development officers and offices traffic in good information. At the same time, the development staff needs to commit to educating all constituents about the on-going case for support, while the director of development works closely with the head and board to ensure that targets are being met and every know his or her role.

Success also means paying proper attention to the Annual Fund. Before you are ready to successfully solicit six- and seven-figure gifts, creating a culture of philanthropy at your institution is best established through a successful Annual Fund, consisting of unrestricted gifts for current operations that, in all, put a premium on participation. In other words, in addition to being absolutely essential to annual operation of the school, healthy annual support is the gateway to a successful program in major gifts and planned gifts.

Focus on the Funding Climate

Needing money is different from being ready to raise it and deserving of your constituents’ support.

Building a strong development program is an investment over time. Take the right steps and your institution will be rewarded. At some schools, improving fundraising may be a matter of reexamining the systems already place — finding ways to improve the processes. At young schools that are shifting from start-ups to schools designed to thrive over the long haul, the goal may be to build the right foundations for a development program that will grow over time.

In either case, picking the right director of development is certainly important, but that person’s success or failure depends on everyone at the institution being on the same page when it comes to fundraising and on knowing everyone’s respective roles. This is particularly true for a school’s Board of Trustees. Your donors are looking to them to lead by example, and their conviction and enthusiasm will inspire others to follow. Only then can the director of development invoke the rain gods.


John Clark joined Carney, Sandoe & Associates in 2011 and is the Practice Group Leader of CS&A’s Development and Finance Practice. He served previously as Director of Institutional Advancement at Loomis Chaffee and Director of Advancement at the American School in London. John can be reached at john.clark@carneysandoe.com.

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