'Tis the season... for musical chairs - or - Putting donors at the heart of senior leader transition

by Marc Whitmore - 13 December 2017


As schools start announcing the appointment of new Heads over the festive season, Marc Whitmore examines how to take best advantage of the transition period.

If – like me – you believe that relationships are at the heart of philanthropy then it may be obvious that times of leadership transition require careful attention, creating both challenges and opportunities in equal measure. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I start to receive emails from Deputy Heads asking, “Should I do anything before I start my new role as a Head?”, and from Governors asking, “Our Head is moving on - how should we tackle things?

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of schools in this situation to help them get the transition right: from newly-established offices such as that at Woldingham School to more mature operations like that at Magdalen College School. While the specifics vary from institution to institution, the most important thing to remember is to stand in the shoes of your donors. Keeping the following four points in mind will then help you maximise the opportunity:

“People give to people”
Times of transition create uncertainty, and while your values and culture will persist, new leadership may mean donors hold back a bit while they see how the new Head will pan out.

That didn’t happen at Magdalen College School (MCS) where, in December 2015, Helen Pike was announced as the new Master. Instead, through close work with then-recently-appointed Director of Development, Susie Baker, and the outgoing Master, Dr Tim Hands (now at Winchester College), we developed a comprehensive plan to hand over each major relationship. During a time when many schools experience a dip in funds raised, the MCS team secured nearly £3m over a two-year period as a result of thoughtful and increased engagement.

The most important factors in this approach were:

1. No surprises. Institutions have choices about when and how stakeholders are informed about organisational change – and by whom. At MCS, Tim led on the most important relationships and communicated openly about the transition. There were no surprises for their biggest donors.

2. Multiple links. With our support, Susie assiduously built relationships with major donors during Tim’s final year. She was also careful to involve others, including Governors. This ensured that MCS’ major relationships were held by a number of people who could speak for the institution as a whole, not just the outgoing Master.

“You say goodbye, I say hello”
One of the positives about transitions is that they provide two distinct phases for engagement with prospects: one to celebrate the successes of the past and another to welcome new energy for the future. At Woldingham School we worked with outgoing Head, Jayne Triffitt, and Development Manager, Camilla Mair, to raise funds for the Jayne Triffitt Bursary during her final year. This also created plenty of opportunities during Jayne’s final year to introduce the new Headmistress, internal-appointee, Alex Hutchinson. The Fund beat all expectations and the first pupil benefitted from the award in September 2016. Following Alex’s appointment, the School has been celebrating its 175th anniversary, creating further opportunities for engagement around the organisation’s future.

“Be prepared”
At both MCS and Woldingham, the incoming Head met with their Director of Development before taking up post. This provided an important opportunity to build the confidence and trust necessary to nurture good working relationships. The conversations covered four main areas: each other’s experiences in philanthropy; individual expectations about role; the key players (donors and prospects, Development-focussed Governors and other senior volunteers, VIPs and other important stakeholders); and an emerging engagement plan for different stakeholder groups over the first 6-12 months. A good opening question? “Why did you take the job?”

Decide what success will look like in your first year
To do so, I’d suggest the incoming Head should consider three inter-related questions:

  • “How much time will I give donors and prospects?” Reflecting on her first year as Head, Alex said “There are so many calls on your time as a new Head, so decide in advance how much time you can realistically give to Development meetings and get them into your diary as early as possible.” You should certainly aim for the new Head to have spent some meaningful time with all of your top donors, if not many of your top prospects too, by the end of the Spring term.

  • “When will people expect me to listen? When will they expect me to lead?” Heads are appointed with a clear vision for the future of an organisation, however that vision is often created on the basis of limited knowledge garnered through the recruitment process. Over the course of the first year that emerging vision will be tested and refined: priorities will rise and fall in the light of the reality of implementation and as the Head engages meaningfully with different stakeholders. Good Development Directors recognise this and will help balance opportunities for the Head to get to know and understand donors and prospects (in the Autumn and Spring terms most likely) with the chance to start testing out emerging thinking in late Spring/Summer.

  • “What support do I need to do this well, and where can I get it?” Some Heads have a great deal of experience raising funds. Most don’t, and are thrown into fundraising with little training or support, despite the fact that fundraising is a skill best developed through guided experience not via PowerPoint. Being clear about your training needs, discussing them with your Director of Development and putting in place a plan to address them will contribute greatly to the success of your first year.

In conclusion therefore, while times of transition are challenging, with some careful planning and by putting yourself in your donors’ shoes you can avoid missteps. In doing so, you will almost automatically create authentic opportunities to engage and involve donors in your work and build fantastic foundations for the future.