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Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 6.3


Reviewing the Current Situation

When you arrive as director of development, it is unlikely that you will be starting with nothing. You will need to investigate several factors. This may take time, as some information you will be aware of before you arrive, but you are certain to discover far more once you have started working.

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.


During recruitment, you will have (or should have) discussed your employer’s expectations regarding income generation, time scales and the number of prospects and projects you can manage. To assess the suitability of these expectations you need to now take stock of your resources and understand the context in which you will be working.

After taking stock, you should revisit these expectations with the vice-chancellor or senior management and use the information you have gathered to set goals that are realistic and attainable and to establish what resources may be required to achieve these goals.

Be realistic as to what can be achieved and the time scales involved. If new staff members need to be recruited, for example, then factor in the time needed to appoint them and for them to be able to start functioning effectively.

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.

Note: If you handle personal information about individuals, you may have legal obligations to protect that information – for example, as proscribed by the UK's Data Protection Act of 1998.

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.

The Legal and Financial Position

You must understand the legal and financial framework within which you will be operating and the implications it may have for your activities.

Many institutions will have charitable status; some will have independently governed charitable foundations; others may have different legal status. It is important that you know the legal status of your organisation and that you ensure any legal obligations relating to this status, in the context of fundraising, are met.

This applies as well to any associated organisations or structures that may have been established to assist with fundraising (e.g., a 501(c)3 charitable foundation established in the United States).

In some circumstances, your institution may wish to change its status or establish a separate foundation as a vehicle for fundraising. A change such as this is a specialist area, and expert advice should be sought.

Whenever money is changing hands, it is essential to accurately record the transactions and report them to the appropriate authorities. You need to know whether the systems already in place can accommodate philanthropic income in this way. The responsibility for recording, acknowledging and reporting philanthropic income needs to be clearly assigned and properly fulfilled. A good working relationship with your institution’s finance office is key to achieving this.

It is equally important to be aware as soon as possible of the internal policies or procedures within your organisation that will affect fundraising and relationships with donors. Ideally, your institution should already have a fundraising policy or policies that cover(s) matters such as the acceptance of donations, ethical fundraising, data protection and management, management of endowed funds and donor recognition (e.g., the naming of buildings, facilities, academic posts or scholarships). Your institution’s legal or secretary’s office should be consulted early on to clarify what may already be in place.

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) and
  • Key opinion formers among your alumni and prospects (e.g., president of the alumni association, honorary graduates etc.).

Action Items
  • Ensure there is an expectation set with senior management that some time will be required to assess the current situation before a fundraising strategy and realistic targets can be agreed upon.
  • Assess your starting point by interviewing people involved with advancement-related efforts and auditing their skills and capacity; determining what efforts have already been made and how you can leverage these efforts; surveying data, systems and other resources; and understanding your legal and financial position.
  • Be clear about the development office’s role and remit and those other parts of the organisation that you may overlap with (e.g., the research grant office).
  • Revise your goals and prioritise your efforts based on this assessment.
  • Ensure that your priorities align with the expectations of the institutional leadership.
  • Get buy-in and build a network of support internally and externally.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Role and importance of alumni relations
Policies and procedures
Preparing and managing the budget
Lessons from the success (and mistakes) of others
Office structures
Recruiting the right people
Characteristics of a successful fundraiser
Building a cadre of support
The database
Managing and demonstrating success

Victor Dugga, executive director of advancement at the University of Jos, talks about what to prioritize when you start a development department.
Fiona McWilliams, director of external relations and development at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, talks about restarting a development office.