Small steps, big ambition - how to get started in school fundraising

With budgets at breaking point, why employing a school fundraiser still makes sense

The rationale for investing in a school fundraiser is clear. But with budgets at breaking point, how do you get started? Think big but remember the power of small steps, says school development director Alison Cox

Appointing a fundraiser can seem like a luxury that many schools can’t afford, but the harsh reality is that we all have to find new ways to generate essential income. So the question schools really need to ask themselves is: can we afford not to invest in fundraising?

We all want to deliver high quality teaching and learning but, in the current climate, fundraising is the only way schools can fully realise these objectives. Of course, it takes time and schools need to commit to embedding a long-term fundraising culture. The good news is that as long as you have a clear strategy from the outset, even someone working a few hours a week in a small primary school can make a difference.

When I was appointed by Aylesbury Grammar School to establish a development office in 2011, it was unusual for a state school to recruit anyone to raise money. Yet the challenge was clear: as a selective grammar for 1,330 boys in Buckinghamshire, we were one of the lowest funded schools in the country, receiving just over £4,000 a year per student and less for sixth form students. That simply wasn’t going to cover the investment needed to bring our facilities up to date.

Exactly how to address this funding gap was unchartered territory, both for the school and myself. As a part-time, term-time only employee, I was charged with raising three times the cost of running the development office in the first year alone to justify my existence. This felt like a huge ask. Although I came from a commercial background in marketing and PR, my only experience of fundraising was with my children’s primary school PTA. I was effectively setting up a start-up, armed with little more than a basic spreadsheet of alumni, and an ‘old boys’ organisation that occasionally hosted events.

Build 'friendraising' relationships

Somehow I did achieve my target, mainly through luck (there was a former student who was keen to give and I also had a successful bid to a local trust). However, having such expectations for a first year can be counter-productive, because the focus on short-term goals means you pretty much have to start from scratch the following year.

To generate ongoing income, it’s vital to plan strategically and build positive and mutually beneficial relationships (friendraising). Everyone needs to acknowledge that this takes time – and allow for it in the job description. Schools don’t want to be seen as constantly asking for money. Instead the aim should be to create a culture of giving that brings people closer to the school and means the community gives because they really want to help.

For instance, alumni are potentially an important source of financial support but they can also be valuable role models and advocates, and a key resource for expertise, careers advice and employment opportunities. They might even become future parents, governors and staff. At AGS, we have used our alumni comms and events to improve the stewardship of existing donors, as well as identifying and cultivating new ones. By building relationships, we’ve encouraged alumni to be reflective about their experience of the school, as well as understanding the school and its needs today. Recognising their contributions and thanking them is crucial to the friendraising process.

Managing expectations

It’s vital to have big ambitions, but everyone needs to be realistic about the timescales for delivery. So get in front of the right people (most crucially your SLT and governors) to talk about your vision and to manage their expectations. Try to have a direct link with the headteacher – they need to see the value of your work and they need to be part of it.

Both the school and fundraiser should work together to ensure that key performance indicators are about more than the money that comes in. Make it clear there are lots of other things going on around this role that are really important. For instance, relationship building with the wider school community, and the sharing of expertise by former students giving back their time and energy. By my second year in the role, I felt secure enough to stress the importance of building for the long term. Now, although it varies depending on the project, we leverage funds consistently above target.

Get your story right

It’s tough for schools to deliver high quality education without the philanthropic support of a wider community. That means it’s crucial to get your Case for Support right in order to have a clear, consistent message. See State your case for more information on how to write a case for support.

You have to find a narrative that really works for your school – and this takes time, research and many conversations. In fact, you will be continually reforming it. Becoming a ‘scholar’ of your school (immersing yourself in your school’s history and achievements) will give you instant credibility with alumni.

Write your plan and make sure everybody knows about it – and is aware of the timelines. Decide on the projects you want to prioritise and be clear on communicating what will be the result of a donor’s support. Fundraising for capital should never be about ‘topping up’ the school budget, but about funding projects that enrich teaching and learning.

Be ambitious

Think big but remember the power of small steps. Focus on end goals and work backwards, breaking the ambitions and goals down into steps so you are clear on how to manage each project. You will probably be running long-term campaigns and short-term one-off appeals concurrently, so make sure you signpost every success along the way.

We established the Aylesburian Annual Fund to support small, achievable short-term projects. This annual giving programme is the backbone of our fundraising work. We target new parents as a first step on the donor journey but we ask all parents to participate every year. We mark completed projects, such as the refurbishment of our maths and art classrooms, by inviting our community to come together and celebrate. We also work with our PTA on joint fundraising projects, such as refurbishing the fitness suite, music rooms and drama studio.

Additionally, we had two ambitious larger capital campaigns. These are project managed in phases. For instance, the end goal of a sports campaign currently in discussion could take years to accomplish, but breaking it down into achievable stages makes the story and the engagement more emotive. It also enables us to celebrate each phase, which is so important.

Prioritise and focus

Fundraising is hard work so getting the basics right is essential: you need a vision, strategy, good data management and communications. It’s easy to get drawn into the detail, so don’t be afraid of saying no.

Play to your skill set

This role can feel quite lonely and overwhelming, so be your own advocate. Know what you are good at and celebrate your successes. Be inspired by ideas that have worked at other schools, and reach out to others in the fundraising community. Follow fundraisers who share content on LinkedIn to motivate and inspire you, and use the IDPE network for state schools.

My skillset enabled the role to evolve so that I now look after marketing, brand strategy and reputation: ensuring that who we are as a school is conveyed through clear press, PR and social media communications. This allows me to talk to everyone around the school and think big. I also provide support with admissions. Out of all our positive messaging comes the fundraising.

Be open to change

You never know when something might happen that is not part of your plan, so be ready to go off-piste. As an individual or small team, you have the flexibility to react quickly, think broadly and build momentum. We were in the final throes of a science campaign when we noticed that Sport England was bigging up funding for squash, which was one of our strengths. The opportunity to potentially refurbish our courts was too good to miss, so we put the science campaign on hold for a year while we secured funding for squash.

Good data management

A good system can make your job a lot easier but a database is only as good as the intelligence you put into it, and you do need enough time and expertise to populate the system. After a feasibility study, we invested in ToucanTech and it’s really effective for us. We can keep all our data in one place and carry out targeted communications, such as termly newsletters and information about the events programme.

Authenticity costs nothing

We always pick up the phone and talk to people because we want them to know us. For instance, we email out information about our annual fund and if people respond positively, we get in touch. We want to say thank you and build a relationship with them.

To summarise:

  • It’s all about relationships
  • Allocate time to this role
  • Be clear about what you want to achieve
  • Your Case for Support is the basis for all fundraising activity and should connect to the vision and values of your school
  • Be adaptable and realistic
  • Trust your instinct
  • Alison Cox is school development director at Aylesbury Grammar School, Buckinghamshire (1,330 pupils)

Further reading

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