Planning DNA

Planning as Part of Your Nonprofit DNA

At the end of October, I had the privilege of facilitating a learning group comprised of nonprofit development directors attending a conference on major gift fundraising. As a facilitator, I had two sessions with this small group of conference attendees with the goal of sharing ideas and synthesizing conference lessons in real time. To be honest, it was a brilliant conference design and is typical of the reasons why I really respect the great work of the Willamette Valley Development Officers.

The group of peer development directors that I facilitated focused on two major concepts that we developed in our two sessions. The first was to recap and frame how the nonprofit fundraising ecology is changing and, second, we followed with a conversation about what nonprofit organizations need to do in response to the changing environment.

Trends in Fundraising

The first of the two sessions was a review and brainstorm about the the trends that are shaping fundraising. These trends included the following shifts in fundraising practice:


After creating this list, we discussed how some organizations, in recognition of the trends, are adapting their development practices in response to the changing environment. We also discussed that many nonprofit organizations, to their detriment, are struggling to adapt to the changing environment. Emblematic of this struggle to plan and adapt, a recent study of northwest nonprofits suggests that only 31% of nonprofit organizations in our region have written fundraising plans and only 18% have a written business plan (see here). It is hard to adapt when you aren’t taking the time to plan.  The fundraising advantage goes to those organizations that invest in reflecting, planning, and doing as a continuous learning cycle.

So, as a nonprofit leader, ask yourself: [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Are you among those planning and adapting to the changing fundraising landscape or are you among the nonprofits struggling to keep up?[/inlinetweet]  The group at the conference wrestled with this question and it was generally agreed that the biggest facilitator or barrier to making change was time. Time invested in thoughtful planning facilitates change and when time investments in planning are deferred (often due to competing priorities) development leaders are less able to shift forward.  Rather than stay stuck in the barrier stage, the group of nonprofit development leaders turned their attention to the question, “How do we create the space to think and plan?”

Creating and Filling a Space to Plan

In a second conversation of the day, the group brainstormed principles that would help them create the space to plan.  Creating space to develop fundraising strategies involves both finding time and efficiently using the time that you do have. The conversation resulted in six principles that are outlined as follows:

1. Build Real Institutional Buy-In: Planning requires your nonprofit organization to commit to making it a priority.  It is my belief that conceptual buy-in to planning is easy but until the leadership of an organization creates time on the calendar to actually engage in planning the buy-in is not real. Talk about planning must be translated into the work of doing the work of planning.

2. Practice Time & Task Management: I am envious of people who are naturally organized and efficient. I am among those who need to constantly invest in routines that support efficiency. Calendars, task lists, priorities, file organization are all tools I use to help prioritize my time. I say this because finding time can be as simple as better managing the time you have. In addition to time management, we need to focus on task management –especially the ability to defer or even say “no” to taking on new tasks until planning is accomplished.

3. Invest in Your Professional Development: Beyond engaging in professional development “events” (which are important), you need to create a daily routine of self-development. Reading daily newsletters from Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and Bloomerang are starters. Adding print or electronic subscriptions to the Chronicle, NPQ, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review a is the advanced course.

4.  Develop a Team Approach: Fundraising, even in a small shop, requires a team approach to planning. Engaging in development is an element of the job description of everyone working in a nonprofit agency. Drawing on the “collective mindset” creates a stronger planning process. Indeed, a team that creates the time to have conversations about development and actively engages in planning and prioritizing will be a team more motivated to support fundraising and development efforts.

5. Seek Outside Support: The first level of outside support involves finding a mentor(s) that can help you build skills, problem-solve and “normalize” your experience. The second level of outside support is to think about using a consultant to assist your planning process. If you are lucky, you can recruit a qualified volunteer who can provide support and consultation but, more often than not, it is worth paying for a consultant (disclaimer, I am one). In my experience, I have found the strategic use of consultant can often catalyze significant gains in planning and shorten the learning curve.

6. Put it into Writing: Again, there is no excuse for the abysmal rates of nonprofits not putting plans into writing. Winging-it or “following inspiration” might work accidental magic but the most forward-leaning organizations are those that commit planning to paper and focus on implementing the plan.

The changes in the nonprofit funding landscape continues to shift from “what was” to “what will be” and those nonprofits with a planning mindset and supporting planning discipline will be best able to capitalize on the changing trends. For development professionals, especially those flying solo or who are part of a small shop, creating the time to plan is critical and difficult to do. Nonprofit fundraising planning can’t be squeezed in the 15 minutes between prospect calls and the annual fund letter but needs to be an intentional part of your nonprofit’s DNA.  Build, Practice, Invest, Develop, Seek, and Write, are competencies that will allow your organization to lead with change that will support the continued growth and success of your organization’s fundraising efforts.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: Tristan Isolde

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.