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Measuring success and reasonable expectations

You have recruited a new director of development, given her a budget and desk and convinced your senior management that all this investment is worthwhile. What more is required of you, and what can you reasonably expect in return?

It will take a while

Philanthropic income will not begin to pour into the institution from day one. It takes a considerable length of time to identify, cultivate and solicit donors, whether they are giving small amounts on a regular basis or making major donations.

Like many fledgling businesses, your new development office may take up to three years to generate a return on your investment. That said, you may enjoy some modest ‘early wins’ from prospective donors who are already committed to and engaged with the institution and who have been waiting to be asked.

You may be keen to set fundraising targets from the outset, but you need to appreciate that your development director will first need to investigate the fundraising potential of your prospect pool. Without some preliminary research, fundraising targets based on need rather than potential will be meaningless at best, and if they discourage long-term approaches, they may even be detrimental.

In the beginning it can be better to focus on activity rather than income when assessing performance - even when there has been success in securing gift income.

Leadership is vital for success

History has shown that, without support from their institution’s leadership, development offices are likely to fail.

You should expect to lead by example by setting a strong vision, spending considerable time with prospects and donors to support the director of development and even becoming a donor yourself. You need to encourage other senior staff to follow suit.

Development is a team effort

Development activities are not confined to the development office but demand the expertise and commitment of staff across the institution, notably the finance office, careers office, international office, senior academics and the estates development staff.

You may face criticism

Some people believe that higher education should be publicly funded and that asking for donations is akin to begging. This criticism may emerge both from colleagues within the institution and from external contacts.

You must be prepared to spend time educating people about the value of philanthropy in higher education and developing a supportive culture.

Not everyone will say ‘yes’

Fundraising includes a level of unpredictability, and you can minimize uncertainty through diligent prospect research and cultivation before solicitation, but there will still be occasions when, despite all the positive signs, a prospect says ‘no’.

You must be able to handle these disappointments gracefully, take time to understand why the answer was a ‘no’, determine if the answer is really ‘not now’ and remain positively focused on the many who will say ‘yes’.

You will need to identify fundraising projects

Fundraisers can only raise funds if they have projects for which to fundraise.

Donors who will support an organisation with unrestricted funds are rare. Most donors want to be inspired to donate to something tangible (or at least have a tangible example of what their gift equates to, even if providing unrestricted funds).

You will need to set time aside to decide what these projects will be and to ensure that they align with your overarching institutional priorities whilst being attractive to donors.

It is not the job of fundraisers to decide what to fundraise for. They may have views about what projects donors are more likely to support (and you may get valuable feedback from current supporters), but it is ultimately the decision of the institutional leadership to prioritise which faculties and projects will receive what resources.

You might find it useful to talk to the leaders of comparable institutions to benchmark your expectations.