How to build a sustainable development function: a rough guide

How can you ensure that the strenuous efforts of your development team are helping to build something that will make a long-term difference to your institution?

Focus on what will make your development function sustainable — and by sustainable, we mean something that is not personnel-specific. Ensuring that it is replaceable if staff leave; that is durable and flexible in response to pressures both internal and external; that is scalable; and that ultimately is effective, allowing you to do what your institution needs it to do.

  1. Your case for support must be firmly rooted in your institution’s strategic vision 
    This is the core principle for sustainability. With coherence between these two things, you will be able to build a strong community of supporters who are genuinely committed to your institution.
  2. ‘How does this help?’ 
    Your senior leader(s) should be able to articulate the problems to which fundraising is one of the solutions. This will form the basis of your case for support. If your leaders are new to this, help them: find a peer in a similar institution with a leader who has done this. Connect them and begin a conversation.
  3. Gain access
    If you are being asked to raise funds to support your strategic priorities, it will be so much easier to do this if you have access to the decision-makers. Ideally that’s at least a weekly meeting with your senior leader(s) and access both formally and informally to governors.
  4. Have a strategic plan
    It keeps you focussed and means that everyone is clear on your key priorities.
  5. Data is your friend
    Consider running a personal information form campaign to enrich your database. Knowing your data is clean and fresh will ensure you are building on strong foundations.
  6. Policies and procedures
    When someone new joins your team, especially if it’s a brand new role, ask them to create a handbook of all their essential tasks, even for such simple things as ‘what happens when the office receives a death notification?’ to step-by-step gift processing instructions. Your (and their) successors will thank you.
  7. Project management
    Create and use a project management system to keep track of diverse workloads and to ensure that, as far as possible, everything you do is linked back to your core objectives. If you can’t answer the question ‘How does this help?’ when you are planning a project, should you be spending valuable time on it?
  8. Prospect tracking
    If possible, record all your interactions with your donors and potential donors in an easily trackable format on your database — it’s fine to use Excel and Word if you don’t want to invest in specific software. You might want to consider a separate document for recording your interaction history with your top 50 or so donors and potential donors. Creating this can be a lengthy process if you’re established but it needn’t be if you are just starting out with major donor fundraising.

This article is based on a round table discussion between Salima Virji, Development Director at Highgate School, London, UK and Lori Houlihan, Executive Director of Development and Alumni Relations Office, UCL, UK, on the topic of ‘How to Build a Sustainable Development Function’. The discussion was hosted by Highgate School on behalf of CASE Europe.

The list is by no means exhaustive and we welcome your ideas and suggestions in the comments below.

About Salima
Salima Virji has been Development Director at Highgate School since August 2013. In that time, she has set up a development team, organised a year-long programme of events for the School’s 450th anniversary, run two crowdfunding campaigns, and set up the School’s first Annual Giving programme. Donors have given and pledged around £2.3m in gifts and pledges to Highgate since 2013. Prior to joining Highgate, Salima was Head of Development at Magdalen College School in Oxford, after several years in College development offices in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

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