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Capital ideas

Times may be tight, but there are still donors who will contribute significantly to your cause. But how do you identify and engage them? Tim Edge shows how to lay the foundations of a successful major donor programme

In the current economic climate, the prospect of raising money from major donors seems almost counterintuitive.
Surely these donors, like everyone else, are reluctant to give, proving the adage that one of the first casualties in a recession is charitable giving?

While in many cases this is true, there are individuals who, having made a substantial amount of money in the last 15 years, have remained relatively unaffected by the financial turbulence. As long as your school is on an upward curve: with a compelling vision and a vibrant sense of purpose, there is no reason why you should not secure significant financial support. But how do you attract these gifts?

The first step is to identify quickly those individuals who are likely to provide the greatest financial support. It is a widely acknowledged truism that 80 per cent of the money you seek will come from 20 donors or fewer, but how to go about finding them? It’s a mixture of good old-fashioned legwork and the use of modern technology.

Gather information
In my opinion, nothing beats talking informally to influential members of the school community about likely major supporters and their feelings towards the school. Your legwork can be complemented by professional wealth screening: for a relatively small fee there are agencies that will screen your database and highlight individuals who might be in a position to make a significant financial contribution. This will unearth individuals who have not previously appeared on your radar. The trick is to refer those names to those whom you previously consulted, to build up background information and connections.

Inform and involve
Once this evaluation process is complete, it is time to begin cultivation, carefully targeted at your potential major supporters. The mantra of “market to your best customers first, your best prospects second and everyone else last” is true here. Cultivation consists of informing, reconnecting and involving. Bringing news of the school’s current progress, striving to draw the disconnected back into the fold and, crucially, seeking to involve as many of your potential influential supporters as possible in the life of the school through, for example, volunteering or networking activity, is critical. Ideally, cultivation should be carefully planned with at least a year of focused work before any major gift approaches take place.

The power of voluntary leaders
An essential part of any major gift process is the recruitment of active and influential voluntary leadership. A major gift group or development board should be selected with the sole purpose of helping you source and solicit major gifts. Volunteer leaders should make a major gift themselves and should assist you in making approaches where they have specific leverage over a prospect. Ideally your major gift group should be chaired by a high-profile figure whose name alone will encourage others to join. Ensure that your major gift group is armed with a crisply articulated and compelling draft case for support rather than a shopping list of projects with prices attached.

It is important that the case for support is in draft format as it allows you to draw prospects into discussion and involvement: “This is what we are considering, but we would appreciate your views whether we are on the right lines” etc. Once the gift is secured, keep the donor involved with the continuing value of his generosity to
the school and the individuals within it.

Finally, when soliciting gifts, always ask for referrals. There is nothing vulgar or insensitive in asking: “If you were
doing my job, who is the next person you would call?”

Tim Edge is development director at King’s College School, Wimbledon. Tim can be contacted at t.edge@kcs.org.uk 

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