Development Plan Toolkit
Published January 2023
Introduction: Why Make a Plan?
Your nonprofit requires resources to accomplish its mission, whether it’s to rescue animals, support veterans, or provide access to education for children in a developing nation. Meeting that challenge has become even harder as the number of donating households shrinks and new modes of giving have taken hold. Many nonprofits begin life confronted by this dilemma and immediately begin the task of raising funds anywhere and any way they can. In doing so, they are starting at the end.
Development is more intentional, strategic, and all-encompassing than just raising dollars; it’s about raising ambassadors who will join the cause and remain loyal for the long haul. Savvy organizations recognize that meeting their fundraising goals such as cultivating major gifts, retaining donors, and attracting new supporters requires that they be steadfast and intentional in building agile strategies that create and maintain lasting relationships.
Fundraising is not simply an input, but an outcome of an integrated and enterprise-wide process designed to build relationships with diverse stakeholders and establish a consistent brand. In this toolkit, we will explore some of the processes and strategies you can adopt for a successful resource development program.
Successful resource development starts with a well-conceived and executed plan, much like building a home requires a blueprint. The development plan:
- Clarifies expectations, roles, and goals.
- Outlines specific actions and budget to achieve those goals.
- Establishes the metrics that will determine which elements work and which offer opportunities for improvement.
Creating a plan has one other benefit, the need for which organizations often overlook: It helps illuminate the importance of organization-wide participation in resource development.
A development plan is an investment. The input of some time, effort, and thought on the front end can save even more time and effort throughout the process and improve the likelihood of success. Creating a development plan is not just the province of the development team; it must be an enterprise-wide process to capture all the expertise necessary for success.
Creating Your Development Plan
Step 1: Assess the Previous Year
As Lord Byron said, “The best prophet of the future is the past.” The first aspect of the development plan requires the feedback of various stakeholders in addition to any metrics that can offer objective guidance. The finance office can help determine the utility of grants; programming staff can offer input on the role of events; IT staff can weigh in on the plausibility of virtual fundraising tools; marketing can support message development; and so on.
Together, review the revenue mix and determine whether it is appropriate for the organization and if it is sufficiently diversified. A good rule of thumb is that no one source should account for more than one-quarter of an organization’s revenue. Anne Wallestad, President and Chief Executive Officer of BoardSource® notes in the Blackbaud Institute’s The Right Mix: How Diverse Income Models Influence Giving how this concept relates to a critical question. “What percentage of our operating budget would be left unfunded if we lost our organization’s top five donors? For some organizations, this question reveals tremendous vulnerability and fragility. Without their top five donors, they would cease to exist. For others, it documents that a change in the giving of one donor—or even five—would be unlikely to create organizational distress.”
One way to diversify revenue streams is to employ a broad mix of the following so that losing one stream does not cripple the organization:
- Private grants
- Government grants
- Planned giving
- Major gifts
- Annual giving
- Special initiatives
- Direct appeals
- Alternative sources, such as DAFs or real estate
Spending some time in retrospect will help with informed, rational decision-making about whether to accelerate, minimize, tweak, overhaul, or eliminate strategies and tactics employed in the past and whether to consider alternatives or additions. It’s part of the continuous learning and growth that all organizations must experience to thrive.
Step 2: Identify Your Goals
Without goals, how will you know you have succeeded? Goals may be dollar-based—e.g., raise $100,000 via major gifts; volume-based—e.g., retain 75% of previous year’s donors; or activity-based—e.g., establish relationships with 100 new prospects.
Where do these goals come from? Anyone can whip up goals in the abstract, divorced from reality because they’re either unachievable or unambitious. An organization that requires $1 million to function but has never raised $200,000 is in a perilous position. Similarly, setting a $250,000 fundraising goal that leaves the organization unable to meet its obligations is unhelpful. To have value, goals must result from careful evaluation of needs and capacity.
Goal setting must also be a collaborative process that includes all elements of the organization (Blackbaud Institute, The Connected Office). Finance has much to contribute, particularly in realistic budget-setting. The volunteer coordinator has valuable insights into how to best leverage volunteer support. Marketing works hand-in-hand with development, filling the funnel through which fundraisers move prospects. Approval from the Board of Directors will be required, so its input along the way ensures transparency and a smooth journey from goal setting to action. In this way, it is important to break down silos and work collaboratively during the development-planning process.
Goals are endpoints; once set, some reverse engineering will be necessary to create a plan to achieve them. Let’s say your goal is to raise $1 million. The next step would be to identify what it would take to accomplish that. It could be more staff, a new initiative, greater focus on online methods, increased advertising, or a fundraising event, for example. All steps must be built into the plan after the goals are set.
Create A Realistic Budget
Nonprofits often make the mistake of establishing program budgets without input from program managers or staff. The resource development staff needs a seat at the financial planning and budgeting table. Not only will they advocate for the investment required to raise necessary funds, but they’ll also present a well-considered plan with credible budget numbers. Everyone responsible for creating the organizational budget can then see why funds are needed and how to deliver a return on investment.
The best budget is both forward- and reverse-engineered. Dollar figures should flow from the work that must be done while also being dependent upon previous experience. A budget of $50,000 for end-of-year fundraising that cost $20,000 to produce the previous year is likely unrealistic. At the same time, requesting the same $20,000 if you plan to boost the end-of-year campaign dramatically may not help you get there. Both perspectives are necessary.
Many nonprofits fail to engage in several necessary activities during the budgeting process. First, they fail to budget in flexibility to account for the unforeseen. A tight budget without wiggle room is destined to run into roadblocks that upend the process and cause heartache and cutbacks. Factoring this into the plan allows the resource development team to pivot quickly with minimum disruption. For example, suppose an organic social media campaign doesn’t produce the expected results. Building in extra budget allows the team to pivot and invest in social advertising or some other accelerant to funding.
Second, organizations fail to anticipate and budget for multiple scenarios. Preparing for a suite of possibilities facilitates backup plans and allows the team to respond quickly and effectively without diverging from the path. In the scenario above, the team would have a social advertising campaign ready for implementation if the social media failed to produce the desired result. Course corrections are easier if they have already been planned for.
Testing is the best way to prepare for the unexpected. When building your budget, earmark an amount that can be allocated towards testing factors like your donation forms or outreach activities. Budgeting time and resources to testing provides the flexibility to fine-tune your approach as you move through the year.
Employ Tools to Better Insights
Systems—An invaluable tool when developing your budget and goals are systems like CRM and accounting software, which require large upfront investments in time and money but can streamline fundraising and increase efficiency in the long run. A good CRM program can organize donor data, improve online and direct-mail fundraising, boost data tracking, and automate reporting. The result is often finer, faster, and better donor insight that can reduce the cost of fundraising.
Effective List Building—The art of list building requires much more than simply adding contacts to a spreadsheet or database. The goal should not be simply to add new leads but to add quality leads with genuine interest in the organizational mission. Not every contact is created equal, with differing levels of interest and intents. As such, it’s important to explore pathways for deeper engagement. This allows you to invest in new contacts who are looking to make an impact alongside your organization and saves your resources from spending time on leads unlikely to turn into meaningful connections.
In fact, generic list building today is largely unproductive, as much of the buying journey occurs outside an organization’s purview. Prospects come to you via a wide array of online sources, like search engines, apps, social media, or review sites. Generic messaging is likely to increase distance from many of the prospects that join your list and reduce conversion rates.
Building a functional list requires a series of steps outside traditional list building. It starts with the website, where more powerful calls to action than simply “joining” or “signing up” may be necessary. Research shows that supporters are more likely to complete contact information forms when they are broken up onto a series of screens. A multitude of untapped channels, like Twitch, Quora, and WhatsApp, can provide rich veins of prospects if they match your target audience. Social media platforms like TikTok and, decreasingly, Facebook remain a robust space to connect with new audiences when constructive conversation and dialogue (i.e., not push ads) are employed.
Measure Your Results
Often the most overlooked element of resource development is outcome measurement, particularly when getting beyond dollars raised. You can measure your outcome by considering efficiency, effectiveness, and processes. This will provide insights into which steps are ultimately responsible for success.
Robust measurement via a series of metrics leads to analysis that informs future fundraising, elucidating opportunities for improvement and possible paths forward. Among the useful metrics are retention rate and average gift amount, as they are major factors affecting campaign growth. Evaluations of processes, like the use of volunteers in fundraising, also serve as a window into campaign success.
It is important to measure fundraising efficiency: how much it costs to raise those funds. According to the report The Next Generation of American Giving, when donors are looking for financial information on nonprofits, their top concern is financial efficiency (70% of donors researched this metric before giving). They want to know that the organizations they support are good stewards of their money.
Step 3: Align Your Goals to Strategies
Detailed goal setting has utility. Within each larger goal, a further breakdown into sub-tasks creates intermediate baselines against which to measure success and make corrections mid-course. Retaining 75% of last year’s donors is a commendable goal but only achievable through a set of strategies and a multitude of tactics. The determination of success can’t come until the campaign’s end. A sub-task of contacting every $100+ donor about renewing their gift by Thanksgiving offers a more intermediate metric of your progress. If only half of last year’s donors have been contacted by that time, the larger retention goal of 75% will be difficult to meet. Knowing this can guide priorities going forward and temper expectations.
Goals are not just abstract ideas or tasks to be accomplished. Rather, goals should meet the “SMART” criteria of:
“Write a case for support” is not a goal because it doesn’t have a measurable outcome. It is a strategy for accomplishing the goal of increasing the number of donors. That goal, expressed in SMART terms, would look more like this: “Increase the number of donors by 25% over last year by the end of this calendar year.”
Notice how that goal is specific, measurable, and time-bound. It is obviously relevant to fundraising, and it sounds attainable, without knowing the conditions involved.
Build Your Calendar
Your fundraising calendar establishes a clear hierarchy of events and an understandable workflow for all involved, outlining the steps needed to achieve your goals.
A workback schedule allows your team to organize a project from beginning to end. Reverse engineering a project’s schedule—i.e., working backwards to plan tasks—allows staff to identify milestones needed before delivery.
To establish a workback schedule, gather deliverables, goals, and due dates assigned to the team and estimate the length of time required to complete each. Build in time to communicate with other stakeholders. Be realistic about each task, and take holidays into account.
The calendar may be general, offering a map but not a specific route to each destination, or it could be specific, broken into strategies and tactics that build iteratively to intermediate goals. For example, if your strategy involves email marketing, the calendar could include the dates for each email send, or it might lay out the timeline for every task required leading up to the launch of the campaign. You may find that it is preferrable to create separate calendars for larger activities, like events, that have a multitude of moving parts. If you’re using a planning tool like a spreadsheet, it will include boxes to assign primary and support roles and due dates. With respect to dates, you will need to do further reverse engineering; meeting a final deadline will require a series of steps that have their own deadlines.
Don’t forget to include inward-facing activities in the timeline in addition to client-facing activities. Actions that affect organizational function, such as ensuring your e-newsletter list is up to date or your online donation form is well designed, are equally important.
The calendar will allow the development team to benchmark activities against milestones and head off problems before they escalate. If the first in a series of emails has not been designed two days before its send date, that could delay the first email and cascade forward into preventing subsequent outreach from going out on time. With a due date on the calendar, staff can focus attention on the issue and expedite work on the email that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
Share the plan within your organization, then assign responsibility, both primary and secondary, for all the tasks. Doing so ensures clear expectation and contributions from the entire organization. Also, schedule regular check-ins to confirm that everything is on track.
People and Teams
Collaboration and a Culture of Philanthropy
While the notion of eliminating silos within organizations has become popular, its execution is less common. Radical collaboration is a process requiring constant vigilance and effort. Collaboration across departments, divisions, and individuals involves a commitment to including diverse voices every step of the way.
Collaboration is necessary to build a culture of philanthropy within and beyond the organization, connecting the mission of your organization with everything you do. Bringing all stakeholders together to share their stories and connect with one another helps establish culture and invests more groups and individuals in it. The myriad of moving parts within your organization will work better together when everyone is focused on the same mission.
A culture of philanthropy highlights building relationships rather than raising money, recognizing that the latter flows from the former. Its focus is long-term strategy rather than short-term tactics, and its commitment to fundraising is constant and organization wide. Everyone—from the receptionist to the CFO—is a fundraiser in an organization with a culture of philanthropy.
As we noted in our e-book Connected Office, it is vital to partner with others inside the organization to ensure cohesion and integration in donor touchpoints:
Including the Finance Team
From a resource development standpoint, the group most commonly overlooked is the finance team, and yet they play a critical role. While development raises the money, finance manages it and creates the budget within which development works. Because donors care how their donations are used, development reports back about how their money is managed. This virtuous circle requires ongoing collaboration between development and finance in order to raise new funds and retain existing donors.
As Susan Ross noted in this commentary on Blackbaud University online, the cooperation of the finance team is imperative in building case statements used to solicit donations and to investing in development strategies and communications used to raise funds. The finance team can also demonstrate that organizational leadership has a solid financial plan, which inspires confidence among donors.
While including the finance team is more urgent, every branch in the organization should also collaborate in the resource development strategy. Teams siloed in their own distinct areas shape their unique methods and messaging for supporter outreach, which means supporters are potentially interfacing with different departments through a variety of channels for things like volunteering, events attendance, committee service, making donations, or visiting the website. When the constituent experience is inconsistent and off-brand, the sum of these interactions can be confusing and create distance. However, when the organization speaks with a singular voice, each interaction reinforces the others and increases engagement.
Consider Your Stakeholders
Input from as wide array of stakeholders is critical. It expands the field of perspectives, establishes broad ownership of the schedule, and short-circuits problems before they arise. These stakeholders may be internal to the organization or external, and there may be a hierarchy of stakeholders, with some primary stakeholders—like donors—and other secondary in importance—like vendors. Including multiple voices might require planning meetings or focus groups.
The Value of the Creative Team
At its heart, people give to charities because they are inspired by stories that resonate with them. All good persuasion is storytelling. Knowing your audience and tapping into their motivations are key to messaging that delivers high conversion rates. At the same time, people are time poor, bombarded by demands for their attention. To cut through the clutter, your stories must be powerful, personal, and concise.
A strong value proposition can guide great copywriting, establishing consistent messaging and offering the best reasons for giving. Great copywriting from the subject line to your call for donations ensures donors open appeal letters and read them, look forward to receiving newsletters, and know they are appreciated. On average, 80% of nonprofit newsletters are deleted without being opened (Influencer Marketing Hub, Average Email Open Rates by Industry 2023). Building a strong relationship with supporters through storytelling will keep them invested in your work.
Great design is a feast for the eyes that invites engagement with written materials. Professional design built on established principles can make the difference between outreach being deleted and delighting readers.
Some guidelines for basic, DIY graphic design include:
- Keep it simple and effective.
- Make the visual hierarchy clear. Not everything can be the most important.
- Employ white space.
- Don’t go overboard with colors. Use colors that work together and are in line with your brand.
- The fewer fonts, and the easier to read, the better.
- Avoid stock photography.
- Maintain brand consistency.
In short, to build a successful, long-term resource development, you need: a culture of philanthropy that involves the whole enterprise; a commitment to the process from before the beginning through after the end of each campaign; a radically collaborative approach; a focus on building relationships with all stakeholders; a detailed plan and calendar that create expectations and guide workflow; and objectives and measurements to determine the success of the venture’s various elements.
Resource development asks for a blend of art and science, so your results will depend upon the extent to which you adopt these guidelines and employ experience to adjust your strategies and tactics. By focusing on the process, and the culture required to support it, you’ll find the money will follow.
Development Plan Toolkit: Your Three-Step Guide to Strategic Fundraising is the product of many great minds who have contributed to numerous assets along the way, shaping the framework of this resource. Here are a few of the key contributors:
- Ashley Thompson, Managing Director, Blackbaud Institute
- Barry Waldman, Big Fly Communications
- Kate Averett Anderson, Senior Content Manager, Blackbaud Institute
With special thanks to:
- Lawrence Henze, Engagement Strategy Framework
- Carrie Watkins, Aligning on a Revenue-Wise Strategy: A Conversation Guide for Nonprofit Finance Leaders