Image courtesy of UWCSEA
How can international schools
get governance right?
9 December 2019
As international schools whiz Dave Shepherd joins the More team, a few of us got together to discuss the challenges for achieving good governance – and how fundraising is transformed when you do.
Good governance matters
No matter the question we face as a fundraiser, it’s always helpful to take a step back and stand in the donor’s shoes. Why does governance even matter to a donor? Surely it’s something that happens in the background? A bit of bureaucracy, something a bit boring that’s more likely to throw up obstacles than support fundraising? It’s no wonder some Directors of Development in schools report frustration with Governors – how often do we hear “they just don’t get it!” from an exasperated sector-newcomer?
However, if we do take that step back, we can remind ourselves that by definition a gift cannot – legally or morally – come with strings attached. A donor makes a gift solely on the promise that you and your institution will deliver the impact she or he wants to see. That’s true whether it’s a 3D printer, an education for an additional young person, or a new building to transform the way teaching and learning takes place. Seen through that lens, governance ensures you can keep the promises you’ve made. It is good governance that ultimately means a donor’s gift can and will have the impact they’ve been promised. Ensuring good governance for fundraising should therefore be a priority for every single Development Director – whether new to the sector or not.
A very experienced governor – interviewed as part of the forthcoming More/IDPE Good Governance Guide – told us recently: “good governance is a framework not a straightjacket.” And this holds true through all our work with UK and international schools; governance sets the field on which everything else takes place. Governors have ultimate responsibility for strategy; they embody the values, the ethos, the “immutables” of an organisation. Everything depends on good governance, and fundraising is no exception. So how can schools achieve good governance?
Let’s look at the international context
As Dave Shepherd joins our team this month from the United World College of South East Asia, we sought his counsel. “The importance of good governance for fundraising was crystal clear to me at UWCSEA,” he tells us. “Strong governance meant that fundraising could really flourish. It meant that donors had more trust in UWC as a global organisation that can respond swiftly to local changes. And it meant that, when we said we would transform teaching to incorporate environmental themes across a wide range of subjects, the donor could trust that we would deliver. They knew it was no empty promise.”
That’s not to say they didn’t face challenges. “At the very start, there was a lack of fundraising knowledge, and an absence of the structures that will make it a
success,” he says. “We were also working in a strongly regulated environment, with a highly mobile parent body. But there was a real enthusiasm for fundraising.”
Some challenges – and opportunities
At More, we’ve seen that these obstacles are familiar to many international schools. Between us we’ve worked with schools from Switzerland to Vietnam, and from Singapore to Paris. From our combined experience, we’ve picked out some challenges specific to international schools:
Local context matters – but it’s not an excuse. You will always hear: “It can’t work here, we’re not like those Americans or Brits”. This could be due to differences in taxation, law or philanthropic tradition. “We have seen philanthropy work in many different global contexts,” says our Amsterdam-based colleague Maarten Vervaat, who has worked with the International School of Paris. “While each situation is different, there is a common language; a common way of organising and thinking about fundraising. So while we may not know you and your context well yet, we do know philanthropy.”
The nature of the community is important. As families move frequently, international communities can sometimes be very fluid, and that’s a great strength which builds diversity. But it also means that timelines can be short, and that organisations need to build a sense of community right from the very beginning. “Governors have an opportunity to guide philanthropic expectations across a school community,” says Dave. “This is especially true in international schools, where parents seek support on all sorts of matters when they arrive.”
“Governors can help build continuity by encouraging new families to take an active part in community life so they can step in as other families move on,” adds Joanna Storrar, our Princeton-based colleague with extensive experience in Asia and the US. “And serving on boards can be part of how parents experience community. This in turn contributes to boards being the ‘hydrogen core’ of a school's fundraising energy.”
An educational vision is critical. Many schools exist to mirror an educational experience in another country, often the UK or US. If they can articulate the value of their pedagogical approach and how they are enriched by their international context, philanthropy can have a huge impact. Schools that have yet to do this can often struggle to raise the sights of their donors. As Joanna Storrar puts it: “People all over the world can agree that there is nothing more important than the future of our children. And that future is a global one, so international schools that create a global community for their students can have a powerful influence for good. That is a cause worth supporting.”
Thinking about solutions
In recent months we’ve being exploring what makes for good governance, together with our friends at the Institute of Development Professionals in Education (our new guide to Good Governance for Fundraising in Schools will be published in early 2020). Drawing on our professional experience and insights from Directors of Development, Heads and Governors with a track-record of success in fundraising, we have identified a number of factors critical for good governance. These include:
The importance of a clear, long-term strategy for the organisation, and the role fundraising can play within it;
The need to ensure governance structures support fundraising as well as clarity on roles and responsibilities;
Ensuring there is fundraising knowledge, skills and experience within the governing body; and
Building good relationships between governors and the executive and ensuring effective communication between both.
“These lessons apply in international schools just as much as UK schools,” says Dave. “And what I’ve learned is that, given the importance of getting the strategy right, your philanthropic story is absolutely critical. Fortunately, UWC already had a strong sense of educational purpose, based on the vision of the founder Kurt Hahn. It meant that governors and other senior staff were better able to talk to donors about their core values, and to explain the difference a gift would make.”
It starts with the story
In this way, everything in good fundraising governance starts with the story. “If you have a shared understanding of your purpose and priorities, governors and staff can be clear about the role of philanthropy, and about why you’re planning specific activities,” says Marc Whitmore, who has worked closely with a range of both UK and international schools. “When you get the school’s purpose and story right, good things follow.”
This is borne out by our practical experience, including most recently with the International School of Paris. Their challenge was to articulate the impact that philanthropy could have, in order to engage donors. With a Head and Governors keen to understand more, and the support of Courtney Knight, their Advancement & Engagement Director, both Maarten and Marc worked closely and carefully with them to craft a strong fundraising narrative. “We speak with donors all the time,” adds Maarten. “So we brought the ‘donor voice’ in to conversations from the outset, asking the questions that donors are most likely to have.”
And it worked. As Courtney says: “Working with Maarten and Marc was an extremely positive experience, as it provided the necessary outside insight and specialty expertise to advance our project initiatives. From the outset, they worked hard to truly understand our context and school cultural environment. Through our work together, we learned the importance of bringing people with you throughout the process and in building relationships in fundraising, as well as the real power of bringing in the donor voice and external expertise. By the end of the process, we had a governor-approved story that has given everybody clarity on the big questions: Why are we doing this? How will it benefit our pupils and our community? And why would a donor support us?”
And if you only remember three things…
There is no quick way to kickstart philanthropy in your school. The work of building a consensus, bringing people together and shaping your story always takes longer than anyone thinks. But, if you’re in a hurry and want the short version:
Good governance in fundraising really matters;
Get the story right and everything follows;
Ensure you have fundraising knowledge, skills and experience from the start.
Find out more
To learn more about good fundraising governance in schools, sign up to receive our new guide, produced together with IDPE and out in early 2020.