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Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 1.5


Lessons from the Success (and Mistakes) of Others

Learning from the experiences of others is invaluable.

CASE has supported numerous institutions as they have established development office. By being a part of CASE, you can come into contact with institutions comparable to yours that are willing to share their experiences.

This section details some fundamental lessons these offices have learnt during their first years of operation.

Know What You Have to Work With

The foundation of realistic expectations and good planning is an awareness of your starting position. You need to know what you have to work with to achieve your goals and where the gaps are. Stand back, take a long, hard look at your institution and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know what you will be fundraising for and why?
  • Do you have sufficient contactable prospects to approach?
  • Do you have the backing of your colleagues?
  • Do you have the procedures and policies in place to provide a stable backdrop for fundraising?
  • Do you have a database and data?
  • Where do you need to target your investment?
Know What You Want to Achieve – and Be Realistic

You need to know why you are fundraising. It is important to keep long-term goals in mind that are integrated into the overall strategic plan for the institution. These goals must be realistic and carefully articulated, as they will form the foundation of your plans.

Don’t Rush into Things

Spend sufficient time planning and establishing the resources you will need to be successful at fundraising. You will need data, a database, some analysis and research of this data before you can properly begin to identify whom you will approach for support.

It is a myth that the more fundraisers you hire, the more income you will raise. Recruiting a fundraiser is not often the first step you need to take, as he or she will have no platform to fundraise from and nothing to fundraise for unless you have taken the time to assess, strategise, prioritise and put the basics in place.

Embed Awareness of Fundraising into Your Institution

Effective development work is a team effort. Your development strategy should be integrated into your overall advancement strategy and align with the institution’s larger goals.

Staff members from every department across the institution need to be thinking about fundraising, integrating it into their long-term plans and working with the development office to take action.

Take a Long-term, Realistic View

You might be lucky and secure a few gifts in the early days from donors who seem to have been waiting in the wings to be asked. Do not be lulled into thinking that this is an indication of how things will continue.

Fundraising is hard work and time-consuming. It typically takes one to two years for a major gift to come to fruition and several years before a substantial income stream is established. Although you should prioritise ‘low-hanging fruit’, do not be tempted to compare your progress with that of other institutions unless they are of comparable standing. Such comparisons are false and disheartening.

Keep Investing

As your development activity grows and its success gains momentum and scale, keep things going by investing wisely and at the right moments. Tardy or insufficient investment can create a stop-start effect that stifles progress by stalling momentum. Be proportionate in your investment – it must reflect success and the relative size of the institution.

Work Out How You Will Measure Success

One of the first things you need to decide is how you will measure your success. This extends beyond income levels and covers indicators such as number of addressable alumni or number of visits to donors. Set targets against these indicators, but make sure they are realistic.

Celebrate Success

If you secure a significant donation, celebrate it loudly and often while thanking all those involved in the process – even if their role was minimal. Such recognition makes the donor feel appreciated, helps win the support and co-operation of colleagues and inspires other donors.

Celebrations should not be confined to campus but should also publicised externally to show the world that you are actively seeking funds and can use them wisely.

Note: Always ask a donor about sharing his or her name before publicising externally.

Strong Leadership Is Essential

Development work needs the vision, endorsement and involvement of the institution’s leadership in order to be successful. Without it, the effort will lack credibility and fail.

Directors of development need to use the time of their senior leaders wisely. Senior staff members need to lead by example and become supporters of their institution or they may lack credibility when asking donors to support.

Be Professional

There is a very technical aspect of fundraising that covers law, accountancy and tax and ethics. Be professional in your approach to these and become expert in how they relate to philanthropy.

Your professionalism will be reassuring to donors and help you to maintain control of your development activities. Do not bluff or guess. If you don’t know, tell a donor you will find out, and then follow up promptly.

Establish a Pipeline

Invest in your current students (they will be your supporters in the future), and make sure a gift of any size is appreciated as a valuable contribution. Growth is dependent on having a pipeline of prospects and donors. Establish a ladder of giving opportunities, which donors can move up. Many regular or large gifts started as one-off small gifts.

Above all, you will need to be persistent, resilient, optimistic and resourceful.

Action Items
  • As you set up your development office refer regularly to this list of lessons learned to maintain an objective focus.
  • Continue to refer to this list as you review your strategy during the start-up years.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Reasonable expectations
Common objections and their rebuttals
Adapting and modifying practice for your institution
The role of leadership
Reviewing the current situation
Developing a fundraising strategy
Measuring and demonstrating success

Staying Relevant

Networking with peers and keeping abreast of advancement trends and philanthropy trends through organisations such as CASE can be helpful in keeping your expectations, goals and strategies relevant.


Networking with peers and keeping abreast of advancement trends and philanthropy trends through CASE can be helpful in keeping your expectations, goals and strategies relevant.

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Eric Thomas gives advice to those starting a development office.
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