I learned something many decades ago that I’ve never forgotten.
When I learned this, it made me very happy.
You see, I was transitioning from an unhappy, short-lived career in law and wasn’t really sure about my next chapter. Nonprofit work intrigued me, but… was it really a discipline or just something folks “winged?” How would I know I could be successful?
There weren’t a lot of role models around at the time, and I really didn’t know any other fundraisers. And there certainly were no articles to “google” online!
So, I enrolled in a week-long course offered by The Fundraising School, then led by founder Hank Rosso (who I call the “Daddy of Fundraising”), which is now part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.
What a revelation! My eyes were opened to the very nature of fundraising. And the essential pre-conditions for fundraising success.
“Fundraising is a management process and discipline that holds you accountable for promised results.”
This necessitates bringing together a whole bunch of skill sets, systems and strategies to get to your desired outcomes. It’s an ongoing process that requires:
- Strategic planning,
- Measurement, and
You need to invest in (1) tools, (2) skills to use those tools, and a (3) system that seamlessly facilitates plan implementation and holds people’s feet to the fire.
This may sound obvious.
But consider for a moment how you build your annual fundraising plan.
Are You the Master Chef or a Line Cook?
Master chefs start from the beginning and envision success.
They have a vision and consider all available resources. They ask whether they have everything necessary to achieve their vision, or whether they might need something else.
Then they start to get organized. They hire and train staff. They make strategic decisions. They build their menu, execute, evaluate and reassess.
They own the plan; it doesn’t own them.
They succeed, or fail, based on how well they’ve held themselves and others accountable.
Line cooks do what they’re told.
Even if the system sucks. They mostly keep their heads down. And they don’t tend to stick with their jobs. It’s just not that meaningful, or fun.
ACTION TIP: If you’re the leader, work to build a team where everyone has input into your plan/menu/vision/execution. That’s the best way to create ownership and hold people accountable. Don’t sit in a corner and write your plan out all by yourself. You need people to buy in.
6 Critical Questions to Ask to Prepare Your Plan Like a True Master
1. Who’s Involved in Planning Your Menu?
Whether you’re the chief development officer, an associate or an assistant, you can still take ownership of that for which you’re responsible. No one knows better than you the details of your part of the plan.
You can either hide your light under a bushel or step forward with what you know.
Ask yourself which type of planner you are currently? Where do you have room for improvement?
- Do you have a comprehensive, proactive process where you review everything you’ve been doing, evaluate what works/doesn’t work, assess where additional resources are required and get feedback from key stakeholders? Or do you ‘build’ your plan on the run, reacting to board suggestions, imminent funding needs, emerging crises and/or the whims of executive leadership?
- Do you carefully consider current needs, emerging trends and available tools in an effort to rethink your strategies? Or do you simply duplicate last year’s plan and make minor updates?
- Does your plan incorporate measurable objectives, integrated fundraising and marketing strategies, timelines and assignment of responsibilities so that the right things get done in a timely and effective manner? Or do you list a bunch of vague goals like “raise more money,” “create awareness,” or “improve acknowledgement turn-around,” with little clarity as to how those goals will be achieved or who will be responsible for assuring they’re addressed? As a result, are folks constantly worrying they’re going to “get in trouble” for not accomplishing what they were never clear about how, when or why to accomplish?
ACTION TIP: If you’re the leader, ask for staff input into the plan. Endeavor to increase team collaboration every way you can. If you’re not the leader, offer input into the plan. You don’t have to wait to be asked. Before I had staff who reported to me, I spoke up and told folks what I’d learned at The Fundraising School, AFP meetings, other courses, books and articles. Once I became the leader, I asked my team members to draft the parts of the overall plan that pertained to their specific work. Not just goals, but measurable objectives, strategies, dates to begin/complete the work, and who else would need to be involved. We’d then sit down together to incorporate it into the larger plan. This also helps staff understand the big picture, which makes their work more meaningful and reduces staff turnover.
2. Do You Know What’s On Your Plate – and How Much More Can Fit?
- A good fundraising plan keeps you focused and protects you (and your staff) from getting off track. You don’t want your plan/menu to be overloaded with too many items. What happens then is that nothing gets executed well. Not only do you get mediocre results; you burn your staff out in the process. That’s a recipe for disaster.
- A good fundraising plan saved my butt countless times. Because if someone wanted to add a new menu item, I’d get investment up front to divert or add resources — rather than being expected to do more with the same resources.
ACTION TIP: Whenever your boss asks you to add a new strategy into the mix mid-year, simply hold up your Fundraising Plan and say: “What do you think I should drop off this list in order to add in this new strategy?” Another way to go about this is to point to the list of goals and objectives in your plan; then say: “Which of these objectives do you think this strategy addresses, and does it do so more effectively than one or more of the others already on the list?”
3. Is Your Menu Being Sabotaged by Sacred Cows?
Sometimes restaurants are burdened by feeling they must have something on their menu because some “expert” or family member told them this. Often it’s a burger. For nonprofits, the “burger” is often a beloved fundraising event that a handful of board members or donors won’t let go of. It’s not raising much money, and it’s taking up everyone’s time. The lost opportunity cost of this event is enormous.
ACTION TIP: Ask yourself: What are our sacred cows? Should they remain in next year’s plan, or can they be tweaked or eliminated? I’ve known organizations that turned over their events almost 100% to volunteers (the ones most invested in them) in order to free up staff for other endeavors. Of course, this means letting go of control. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you can net more money by doing something else.
4. Are You Consuming Everything on Your Plate at One Sitting?
- A good fundraising plan spreads the work out over a 12-month period. You wouldn’t eat your full day’s allotment of calories at breakfast, nor should you schedule your big projects so they overlap. It just makes everyone so overstuffed they can’t operate effectively.
- Your plan should also take into account the workloads of other staff essential to your plan’s success (e.g., marketing, finance, volunteer services and program staff). If you won’t be able to get the help you need to see your plan through to fruition, you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you even leave the starting blocks.
ACTION TIPS: If you’re working on your annual appeal in the fall, it’s a good idea to hold your fundraising event in the spring. If your e-news launches the 1st of every month, you may want your fundraising appeals to hit towards the middle of the month. If you’ll need feedback on outcomes from program staff, you may want to give them a heads up several months in advance — and even invite them to your development staff meetings now and then so they begin to appreciate the fact you’re all on the same team. After all, the more money that’s raised the more successful program staff can be!
5. Are You Adding ‘Garnishes’ to Your Fundraising Plan ‘Plate?’
A basic meal is nutritious and sates hunger. But one with added garnishes delights and yields an extra bang for the chef’s buck. Annual strategic planning presents you with boundless opportunities to catapult your fundraising results to new heights!
- What are you doing to delight your donors and add extra oomph to your fundraising strategies?
- What are you doing to piggyback on existing strategies (e.g., how might you take advantage of an existing volunteer event, program or publicity event for the purposes of major donor cultivation)?
ACTION TIPS: Consider adding an extra annual appeal mailing that highlights a specific program. Or an additional fundraising element at your gala (e.g., raffle, silent auction, fund-a-need, sponsors). Or a P2P fundraising campaign that enables you to broaden your potential donor outreach. Or a ‘thankathon’ to show donors your gratitude. Or build a more thoughtful, active donor-centered retention program. Or a legacy giving program. Or a monthly giving program.
6. Are You Exuding and Building Confidence?
- If you want folks to buy into your plan/menu, you must project confidence it includes the right items. Otherwise, folks will try to meddle. Project authority, and it’s less likely part-time board members will try to tell full-time fundraisers what to do.
- You also want to assure your team feels confident they can execute their part of the plan. That’s where getting their input and buy-in during the planning phase makes all the difference. Make sure everyone knows what’s supposed to happen, when it’s supposed to happen, how it will get done and why it will work.
ACTION TIP: When building your plan, have a rationale for why you’re including the strategies and metrics you’ve selected. Demonstrate up front why these make sense. If your objective is to increase donor retention by 10%, base this on fundraising benchmarks plus your past performance. If you want to add a monthly giving program, share data on how such programs increase revenues and donor loyalty and indicate likely prospects by generating reports from your database. If you want to switch to a new database or CRM, share your research and explain why you selected this option. In other words, show you know your stuff!
The most successful restaurants are those with thoughtful plans.
Everyone works hard, but they also work smart.
They know what they’re setting out to do, and they work towards that goal together.
Similarly, the most successful nonprofits are those with thoughtful fundraising plans.
They don’t have to wing it. Strategies are not shots in the dark.
Any spaghetti thrown against the wall is done so with team spirit and a good chance of success.
Experiments have a place, and are encouraged.
Failure is an option, but not a way of life.
All initiatives are collaborative efforts, inspired by a clearly articulated vision, and have been researched and well thought out in advance.
These thoughtful nonprofits raise more money, both in the short and long term.
In my next article we’ll look at “What to Put on Your Fundraising Plan Menu.”
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It’s a little bit of an investment, but what’s less than $2/week in the big scheme of things if it will make you a fundraising ‘Master Chef’ — and it will!
Put yourself, and your nonprofit, on the road to success today.
I hope you’ll join me on the pathway to passionate philanthropy.
I’ve got your back.