In the face of increased financial demands and heightened fundraising goals, schools must evaluate the size, structure, and efficiency of their development offices to ensure sustainability in today’s philanthropic landscape. Successful fundraising requires strategic investments in staffing.

The Problem

CCS’s partnerships with over 100 independent schools across the country have revealed common financial and demographic challenges that have a direct impact on the work of development offices.

Independent schools are vying to remain an attractive yet accessible option for families. The desire to be competitive with peer institutions has driven schools to increase spending on constructing top-notch facilities, recruiting highly-trained and specialized personnel, and developing sophisticated, unique programmatic offerings. These expenditures, often referred to as the “amenities arms race,” have driven up the cost of tuition dramatically. Accounting for inflation, the average independent school tuition has risen from $11,837 in 1988-1989 to $23,372 in 2013. [1]

Tuition hikes of this magnitude demand that schools spend more on financial aid to increase their affordability. NAIS data reveals that independent school spending on tuition assistance tripled when adjusted for inflation from 1988 to 2013, demonstrating both a recognition of tuition’s high sticker price and a commitment to recruiting a socioeconomically diverse student body.[2]

Independent schools are also working to overcome changes in enrollment. According to an NAIS school survey, nearly half of the 939 respondents experienced a decline in enrollment between 2006 and 2013, putting further strain on tuition revenue.[3] This decline in domestic enrollment has been met by a movement toward the recruitment of international students to meet enrollment needs. According to NAIS, the number of international students receiving F-1 or J-1 visas jumped from 13,881 in 2005 to 31,122 in 2015.[4] A 2016 survey of independent schools revealed that 40% of schools saw an increase in the number of international students enrolling than in the prior year. [5]

These increased expenditures, whether related to programs, affordability, or enrollment, often dictate the work stream of independent school development offices, which are dealing with their own set of unique challenges. Internally, school development officers must make a convincing case for annual and campaign giving on top of increased tuition, a challenge compounded by the fact that there are fewer full-paying students and therefore smaller annual fund gifts. Independent school offices are also expected to do more; cross-country and even international engagement opportunities, a demand for professionalized research, and requests for sophisticated data analytics put additional strains on small development shops. High-expectations are coupled with the view that development is a “catch-all” department, often drawn into running events, managing volunteers, and serving as a “concierge” to the parent body.

Independent school development offices also face challenges from external forces. Finding and retaining talented fundraising staff can be difficult in the face of a national shortage of talent. A school’s location – remoteness, proximity to a college or other independent schools – can complicate the staffing process even further. In addition to competing for talent, schools must also fight for donors’ philanthropic dollars from both parents and alumni, depending on their respective levels of engagement.

In light of these challenges, changes, and demands on development offices, how can schools develop successful and sustainable fundraising programs?

Four Solutions

School leaders must take time to thoroughly assess the size, structure, and efficiency of their development offices to ensure fundraising success in the face of significant financial and institutional challenges. While there is no formula that will determine the perfect size and structure for your office, there are a series of guiding questions you should consider while assessing your staff. 

  1. Finding the Right Size: As you think about the size of your development office, take into account a few key data points:
    • School enrollment – How many families are in your school community? How many parents are you trying to reach on an annual basis?
    • School type – What ages does your school serve? Is your school boarding or day? Do you need to travel to reach your donors?
    • Alumni and Parent Community – Are your parents involved in fundraising? Are your alumni? Do you have volunteers that you can count on?
    • Fundraising Goals – Are you looking to increase your annual fund goal or launch a campaign?
  1. Structuring your Development Office for Success:
    • Building Blocks of Fundraising: CCS believes that successful fundraising should include the following four elements: case, leadership, prospects, and plan. Your office should be structured in a way that allows your school to clearly articulate its case, to recruit and manage volunteers, to engage with prospects, and to develop strategic, fundraising plans. Who on your staff makes sure these needs are met?
    • Moves Management and Beyond: It is essential that your office maintain a balance of frontline fundraisers and support staff to streamline the moves management process. In addition to the identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of prospects and donors, who on your staff is involved in developing materials, planning events, and processing incoming gifts? Though less glamorous than frontline fundraising, never underestimate the importance of a strong database manager!

CCS currently partners with Horace Mann School, an N-12 day school in Bronx, NY, on its $100 million capital campaign, HM in Motion. A closer look at this engagement reveals that Horace

Mann has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to investing in its development program. Horace Mann retained CCS to assist in the management of its capital campaign, allowing frontline fundraisers to focus on the School’s highly successful annual fund program, which had a record year of $6.2 million in unrestricted gifts in 2018. The school has also invested heavily in support staff – one support staff member for every frontline fundraiser – to streamline operations and ensure that frontline staff have ample time for one-on-one interactions with donors.

  1. Expanding Your Development Staff: It is helpful to think about expanding your development staff in terms of expanding your outreach and impact. Think carefully about untapped donors, gaps in your existing fundraising program, opportunities to better streamline workflow, and potential campaigns.
    • Constituency-based staffing: Who do we want to reach?
      1. Constituency-based staffing allows you to target specific groups of donors including parents and past parents, young alumni, and international donors. CCS has worked with schools to develop positions such as Director of Parent Engagement, Young Alumni Coordinator, and Director of Global Outreach.
    • Program-based staffing: How do we want to reach people?
      1. Consider opportunities to expand your impact and grow your fundraising program. Planned giving, sophisticated stewardship, as well as major and principal giving are becoming increasingly important in the independent school world. Would your school benefit from the addition of one of these programs?
    • Systems-based staffing: How can we structure the way we reach people?
      • Often overlooked though exceptionally important are the positions that keep your office running smoothly. It is essential that you have a person (or multiple people) on your staff to process all incoming pledges and gifts, to effectively and consistently use your school’s CRM, and to promptly acknowledge the contributions of each donor. It is never prudent to cut corners on behind-the-scenes staff.
    • Campaign-based staffing: Why do we want to reach people?
      • Expanding your staff is an important consideration if your school is looking to dramatically increase its annual fundraising goal or to launch a campaign. Both will require careful planning and forethought as well as an extra set of hands.
      • CCS recommends that before launching any kind of fundraising effort, schools undergo a development assessment to identify departmental strengths, challenges, and opportunities and to develop a plan to maximize an office’s efficiency

CCS partnered with Rumsey Hall School, a junior boarding and day school, in Washington Depot, CT to conduct an in-depth development assessment. CCS evaluated the development office’s staffing, structure, and processes through strategic conversations with key stakeholders, a review of all fundraising data, and benchmarking with peer organizations. CCS’s assessment revealed significant potential within the Rumsey Hall community for a strong development program and heightened fundraising goals. In addition to recommending an expansion of the School’s fundraising staff, CCS recommended the addition of a major gift program, a singularly-focused annual fund program, as well as a planned giving program. Since CCS’s engagement in the summer of 2017, Rumsey Hall has made important investments in staffing to work towards formalizing these additional programs and streamlining its fundraising operations.

  1. Retaining your Staff:
    • According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the average amount of time a fundraiser stays at his or her job is just 16 months. The direct or indirect cost of such frequent turnover can cost an organization up to $127,650.[6]
    • Cultivating promising employees is time consuming, but crucial in the high-pressure world of fundraising. Directors of Development should be sure to:
      • Invest in your staff: Offer professional development, mentoring, and on-the-job training
      • Guard against loss of knowledge: Keep meticulous records, develop training manuals, and build cohesive, cooperative teams
      • Monitor staff morale: Celebrate success, conduct regular retention interviews, and offer new projects as well as promotions.

Taking the First Steps

As your development office begins to plan for the rest of the school year, take time to assess the roles and responsibilities of your staff as they relate to the goals and expectations of your fundraising program. There is no one-size-fits-all model for a successful development office. Moreover, the structure and size of your office may need to change in the face of internal demands and external forces. Successful fundraising requires not simply a strategic investment in staffing, but a commitment to self-assessment and improvement!

CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page.

[1] NAIS Research, Tuition Trends in Independent Day Schools,” by William Daughtrey, William Hester, and Kevin Weatherill

[2] Daughtrey, Hester, and Wetherill, “Tuition.”

[3] NAIS, “Enrollment Trends in Independent Schools”

[4] NAIS, “How Schools Recruit and Support International Students”

[5] NAIS, “How Schools Recruit and Support International Students”

[6] Chronicle of Philanthropy, “The Cost of High Turnover in Fundraising Jobs” by Raymund Flandez

About the Author

Sarah Levin is an Executive Director with CCS . She has advised a variety of independent schools and educational institutions in the Greater New York area in strategic campaign planning and management, development assessments, feasibility and planning studies, and pipeline development. A former educator, Sarah holds a Masters in Education from Manhattanville College and a Bachelor of Arts from Bowdoin College.