Six Steps to a Successful Fundraising Strategy

How can a small development team with a big fundraising goal move beyond the handful of “usual suspects” (board members and a small number of loyal donors) to achieve its objectives?

It’s a common challenge of many a school’s development team when envisioning larger, more ambitious campaigns to meet strategic objectives. Recently, at the 2015 CASE NAIS conference in New Orleans, I joined Denis Stokes from Christ School, an independent school for boys in North Carolina, to share some strategies we developed to help Christ School prepare for its next major campaign.

One point we discussed in our forum is the need for a prospect map that helps show the activity required each year of a campaign and the movement of prospects through the major gifts cycle. We have found this to be a very helpful tool for our clients. Download our sample Campaign Operating Plan Prospect Map.

Here are six steps you might take to develop your own successful strategy:

    1. Match the scale of your efforts to the level of your institutional commitment. If you are a Director of Development and you know you won’t have the budget for more than one major gifts officer, then focusing on your most important donors is critical…and that doesn’t mean your “Top 600.”
    2. Understand your prospects. We all think about who of our prospects have capacity; but of these, who have given reliably? Who have given at least one gift of $1,000 in recent years? At least $5,000? Which prospects are you managing who may not have real capacity to make a major gift? This last one may be the toughest question of all!
    3. Build a plan that reflects who those prospects are and what it will take to engage them.  If you know you have prospects who have great capacity and feel good about your school, but aren’t yet close to your institution, you will need to build a robust cultivation strategy. This may include a “road show” by the Head of School; engaging alumni donors to help spread the good news about the School’s success; or freeing up time for development officers to be out of the office more, meeting with donors and prospects. Similarly, if you failed to do a good job of stewarding donors from your last campaign, you may need to go back and report on the impact of those gifts as a critical step in cultivating those donors for their next campaign gifts.
    4. Be realistic about what you can accomplish well with your resources. You may only be able to manage 200 prospects with the major gifts staff you have, but there may be another group of prospects for whom you can build a group cultivation plan. These prospects might receive an update letter from the Head of School twice a year. You might have a member of your Development Committee call to thank them any time they make a gift.  You might email them a few photos throughout the year – the first day of classes, campus decked out for a holiday, the first snowfall. This is where you get to use your creativity to build relationships without exhausting your team.
    5. Focus on those prospects who are most likely to yield results. It is easy to be overly focused on people with extraordinary capacity, but if they have never shown any interest in supporting your school and there isn’t a new angle to try (for instance, a close classmate who is willing to work on this with you, a special reunion year, a project that looks like an especially good fit), it is probably not worth focusing time and attention on them. It isn’t what someone could give, but what we think they might actually give that matters most. Sometimes that means making the tough decision not to pursue your wealthiest alumni and parents, so that you can devote time to those with less capacity but lots more inclination to make a major gift.
    6. Discipline is critical, especially in a “small shop”!
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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…