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Reviewing the situation

Typically, institutions will have researched the potential benefits of development and fundraising activities. They may have commissioned a formal feasibility study and may even have the experience of previous attempts.

There is also a strong probability that your institution will already have resources, such as a database (if not several), historical files, some donors (though they may not call them that) and an ad hoc history of previous philanthropy. This history of previous attempts to establish a development operation is important to understand, as it may well influence (negatively or positively) your colleagues’ view of what you are trying to build.

Also, you may inherit existing staff members who have been running a modest development programme as a precursor to your appointment, often on secondment from other departments.

Your priority is to understand your starting position. Unless you know your starting point, you will find it difficult to set goals and to develop an action plan for future success. It is important to acknowledge what has worked – to build off of these achievements and foster morale with your new colleagues.

Resources: Who and what do you have to work with?

Resources can be split into three main subheadings: people, tools and investment.


Inherited staff can be a great source of support and information in the early days. Development is a team effort, and establishing a team ethos from the start is important.

Existing staff members have an invaluable institutional knowledge about past and current activities. Talking to your colleagues will quickly increase your own knowledge and help you understand what skills and experience your staff can offer to advance development efforts.

Conducting a skills audit of existing staff by reviewing their current job descriptions, status (are they seconded, part-time or on short- or long-term contracts?) and current responsibilities will help you understand how best to manage your staff resources and identify any immediate training needs. It will also help you decide the best way to develop the right team to make your office a success. Support from your institution’s human resources department will be useful in this process.

If you are working alone, you will need to focus on understanding the context in which you are working and the expectations that you must meet. When you have a clear understanding of these issues, take a step back and make a realistic assessment of your skills, the time and resources you have available and consequently what might be achievable.

You should base your development plan on this assessment and avoid the trap of trying to do too many activities and stifling progress. For sole fundraisers, building strong working relationships with other internal stakeholders or perhaps forming an advisory board is vital to success.


The most important fundraising tool is information. You need to know whom you will ask and what you will ask them for.

Review what data you have about current and potential supporters (and alumni) and assess its state.

  • How many records do you have?
  • Where is the information held?
  • How accurate, current and complete are the records?
  • Has the data been assessed in any way?
  • How many existing donors do you have and how have they been thanked?
  • How many people have been identified as prospective donors and how much do you know about them?
  • In what form is the data presented? Have you inherited a room full of dusty index cards or a complex, populated database?
  • Who is managing the data, if anyone? Keep in mind that data management is a specific skill and a time-consuming task, leaving little time for other activities.

This initial assessment will help you decide the spending priorities for your budget.

Once you have assessed your prospect data, you need to assess the projects or priorities that you will be asking prospects to support. It is important to have a well thought out, balanced list of priorities that align with institutional priorities, appeal to potential donors, and fall within a realistic timeframe to allow for fundraising to have an impact.

This list should be reached by consulting with key internal stakeholders and leaders, and it should be clear the difference that philanthropy will make (i.e., will these projects go ahead regardless of the amount of funds raised or is 100 percent of funding required?). You should be able to judge what is more or less feasible, but it is not your job to prioritise the projects for which to raise money.

The final key element of data to analyse is any existing donations, legacies and other forms of philanthropic income. The finance office will be invaluable as you piece together the often patchy and irregular history of philanthropic income to your institution. This information is important, as it provides an initial benchmark from which you can measure future income generation and identify any pre-existing donors who merit careful stewardship.

Existing channels of communication are another important fundraising tool. Do you have an established alumni magazine or website? Are they adequate to support a new development office? What other existing channels of communication do you have available to you (e.g., events programme, e-newsletters, telephone campaign)?

Finally, what is your working environment like? Do you have adequate room for your staff and activities, a good IT infrastructure and sufficient meeting space? Are you accessible to visitors?


Your institution has already invested in your post and may have made other investments in staff and previous development activities. To develop a strong development team and successful development programme you will need a clearly articulated, well-managed budget.

Your budget may be assigned to you at the time of your appointment without your input. As you make your initial assessments, you may find that you need to put money aside for large expenditures, such as new staff and a database.

It is sensible to work out how much budget you will have left to support your activities once any unavoidable regular expenses (e.g., photocopying, print costs, postage) have been deducted. This remaining element of your budget will inform your development plan. It is up to you to decide how this element of the budget can be spent most wisely.

As you implement your development plan, be sure to gather evidence that will support any future requests for a larger budget. Accurate record keeping of expenditure and income is essential to demonstrate that you can provide a return on investment.

Who are your current donors and how are they recognised and stewarded?

You should become aware of who have been and are currently the major donors to your institution and what donor recognition or stewardship processes are in place.

  • What currently happens when individuals or organisations make gifts to your institution (including legacies and gifts in kind)?
  • Where are donations handled?
  • How are they acknowledged?
  • What happens to the funds once they are put into your institution’s bank account?
  • What donor reporting takes place?
  • Are donations received elsewhere in the organisation and, if so, how will the development office become aware of them?

Your institution must be clear about how it defines philanthropic income and whose responsibility it is to attract other types of income (e.g., corporate sponsorship, lottery funding, statutory support and research grants), which may come from charitable trusts or foundations.

Who will be your best supporters?

Successful development offices normally have a strong champion – ideally, the leader of the institution. This champion will need to work closely with you to win the cooperation and support of colleagues and to maintain the momentum of the fundraising programme.

Other important colleagues with whom you should cultivate a strong working relationship with from the start are:

  • Academic leaders, who will help you identify the projects that need philanthropic support and the engaged alumni who may support them
  • The staff in the office of the leader of the institution, who will be the gatekeepers to the leader’s schedule and will know how the flow of information is best managed
  • The head of the finance office, who will help you process, measure and report the income you raise
  • The marketing/website team, who will help you develop your communications programme
  • The head of estates development, who will help you identify projects that need philanthropic support
  • The legal team or company/university secretary
  • Members of the governing body or council (especially those who are alumni or existing donors)
  • Key opinion formers among your alumni and prospects (e.g., president of the alumni association, honorary graduates etc.)