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[2,500 words - 9 minute read]
You have been asked by your executive director, or your board, to write up a development plan, but you haven’t ever done this before and have no idea what it should look like or what it should contain. Where do I even start?
You have come to the right place to get a quick overview of a tried and trusted way to put this ever-critical document together.
Get ready to dig into some data and run a few spreadsheets. Because like many parts of development work, many of the answers to your assignment will reside within your current database. How many years of good data do you have? Ideally your development plan will look at trends over the last three years, but if you only have two or even one year, then that is what you will work with. (If you do not have any donor history, then you should probably be writing a case statement and pulling on all known organizational contacts to see who will start your philanthropic efforts with seed money. But that quest is for a different blog post.)
Your Plan outline
The main components of your plan are as follows:
A quick summary of the reason you have put together the document, who is supposed to read it, and perhaps a preview as to whether this is an exciting year with lots of possibilities, or a challenging year (but you are still excited because… you’ll need to think of something here!)
This is going to show giving history right alongside your predictions and goals for the coming year. Your table will be followed by a summary paragraph and some charts that give a few highlights and make notes of some trends from the past couple of years.
This is the meat of the plan where all the action is. You will have subheadings for each giving category (which we will discuss in just a moment), make note of some key things happening within that category of giving, and then lay out some key strategies for the upcoming work.
This is the place where you sum it all up, give your professional opinion, and give a general whoop of excitement about the possibilities in development if we all work together toward a common goal.
State the purpose of the plan and give an overview of what the reader will learn from the document. And yes, this needs to be written last as you probably don’t know this yet, so we will skip this for now!
First data set
Your opening page will be a simple spreadsheet. The first column will show the giving categories, and then this is followed by three years of information showing how much money has been received by the organization within each of these categories. The giving categories will typically be government, foundations, corporate, individual, and special events. (Earned income will be the purview of other departments most likely.) And these categories will probably have some subdivisions. See the table below which shows a sample of what your past history might look like.
There are a couple of things to note here. How do you want to categorize corporate foundations? This will depend on how things have been done within your organization in the past. My preference is to put them under corporate -- my reasoning is that the decision-making process is basically the same as corporate sponsorships, but the company has just set up a different mechanism to manage and distribute the funds. While the same could be true of private foundations versus individual gifts, there are still rules and procedures from Uncle Sam that mean the money from foundations is handled in a more formal manner and will likely require some kind of application process.
The next part of your work is look at this data and see what is going on. I like to look at the trends and make some observations, even if they seem obvious to you, they may not be obvious to the reader with no fundraising experience. (Yep, this is where you start to write you plan.) What areas are trending up or down, and why? Are you able to articulate any larger gifts that increased or went away that reveal what is happening. Perhaps there are larger trends you should point out nationally (a recession) or in your community (a major fundraising initiative by the mayor has sucked away dollars from a number of your major donors or you had a couple of major donors who died). The purpose of the section of the plan is to give your readers a baseline understanding of the current development activity in your organization.
It can be helpful to show your data graphically. Here are a three different ways you might show your data:
Next comes the fun part. Within each of your categories will be lines of data showing each gift. Hopefully your database allowed you to spit this out by donor, if not, you have some data clean up to do. DO THIS IN THE DATABASE if possible and then rerun the report. Always aim to keep your data clean at the source and save yourself having to repeat this process again next time you need to do some data diving! However, sometimes it is just easier to export it out and run a few graphs in a spreadsheet.
Add a column in your spreadsheet and label it “Giving Average.” Then, use the AVERAGE() function to quickly give you this number. Next to this, add another column titled “Retention Probability.” You will then go through each record of your spreadsheet and input a percentage number. You will want to explain this part in your text, so choose four or five percentage numbers that make sense to you (100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, 0%). Your text will clarify what each of these percentage lines means to you. 100% and 0% pretty much speak for themselves. A more recent donor I might put at 75% or 50%, depending on how close your organization's relationship is with them. And I would assign 25% to those donors with whom you have no, or little, relationship.
Working through each of your donors like this is healthy. It will make you think of certain actions you need to take with donors (so-and-so needs a follow-up from one of your board members, or this foundation will give again next year, but they have already told us that they are sunsetting the foundation the following year.) Make a note of these in a notes column.
You will also think of new prospects that have been mentioned by other staff and board members. You can add them to each of your categories, too. They will most likely have a 25% probability rating unless there are special circumstances related to that particular prospect.
Once you have this complete, SUM() it all up and you have your first look at your fundraising plan for the coming year. Write a summary paragraph for each of these categories, highlighting the special stories worth noting. This might be the new board member you will be bringing on from a major corporation, which you feel could open up that corporate foundation’s support. Or it may be a series of meetings you have been having with a donor who is very interested in funding a new initiative of the organization.
But wait!!! Unless all of your prior year gifts are 100% renewable (i.e. with absolute certainty) then the total will be short. Afraid so, and this is why development is a constant march uphill. Every year, you will need to attract new donors and try to increase giving from your most loyal supporters. So now we add a new category to your roll-up sheet from earlier. Each of your giving categories will need a “New Corporate” (or whatever category) to be added into its section. The detail here is also crucial. This is where you get to write down all the ideas that have been slung at you over the past few weeks and months. You know the ones… they range from
“Why don’t we do a new special event fundraiser?
to the classic...
“Bill Gates (substitute to whomever is famous in your area for philanthropic giving or just being rich) has lots of money, we should be able to get $10,000 from them, they won’t even miss it!”
You will also have had some sensible suggestions.
“My company has a foundation and I have started to get acquainted with the giving officer. I’d be happy to approach him about supporting us,”
“I see a local trend of more people looking to support causes like ours as they respond to the changes happening under the new mayor.”
If in doubt, stick them all in your sheet. The “Bill Gates” suggestion will get a 0% probability, whereas the company foundation idea might get a 25% or perhaps 50% probability, depending on how far along the conversations are and their giving history locally. Many of these are going to require some research -- you have most likely have a sense of which will warrant your time. And if you have a persistent board member who has to see his Bill Gates idea in the plan, then the assignment column will have his name in it with a suggested action item.
Here is an example of what one of your sections might look like:
In our example, the plan calls for eight “asks” with potential revenue of $112,500. However, we are only going to budget $76,625 due to the percentage calculations used in the “Likelihood” column. This is the area which you will probably explain further in your text. You will also likely have some discussion with others in the organization about whether your assumptions speak to everyone. In the example shown, Boogle only has a 50% chance of renewing. This might be because the company is not doing well, or perhaps there was a change in CEO which is making you nervous about whether you should rely on them renewing their gift. Datamasters however is a company that we think might give more, so that is what we will ask for, however, we are only going to budget a 75% likelihood, which drops to $9,375 in the budget. If you have just a few lines, like we have in this example, you might just fix this to show a $10,000 renewal and a note about the upgrade ask. But if you have dozens of row, it is not worth it,
In the prospect section, you see that they are all at 25%, except HandyMan.ai which you feel has a more likely chance of coming in based on the fact that their CFO has been a long time subscriber and knows many of your board members through the local Rotary Club.
Wait, we haven’t talked about the Assignment Column yet. Or even the Assignment Columns! I would suggest two. One column is labeled Board Assignment, and the other Staff Assignment. By each gift (whether it is renewable or a new prospect) you will assign a person, and when appropriate (which is more often than not) a specific action. It will be something like “John (ED) to call with regards to grant process” or “Sam (board member) to set lunch meeting.” Most of these will be a phone call or even better, an in-person meeting. Fundraising is done during quality human interaction, and emails and online chats do not cut it. They are useful to set up the phone call or arrange the lunch meeting, but not for building meaningful donor relationships.
Now that you have details of the major donor activity in your notes, you will need to write up some strategies within each of your sections. In the context of writing this plan, I would define a strategy as a collective action that the organization will take. It will have a specific start and end date, and have a clear, numerical goal. For example:
“Increase number of small donations from new donors by 10% (30 new donors) through a targeted end of year letter to 600 new prospects and assuming a 5% success rate.”
You will note that this strategy has a time parameter (the year end appeal letter) and lets the reader know the assumptions you are making. It is very useful to put some context on what it will actually take to gain those 30 new donations, you are going to have to mail to 600 new people. The cost of postage alone will cost you $250, plus staff time to pull the lists, create the mail merge, and print and stuff the envelopes.
Another example might be to add three additional donor thank you events, with the explicit goal of attracting at least five donors as yet not well known by your organization. And then through follow communication, have a goal of at least one donor from each event giving a sizeable increase in their giving -- perhaps 50%.
You are almost done. Your conclusion lays out some thoughts you have about the overarching prospects for the coming year. And you do still need to go back and write that opening paragraph. Now you will have a sense of what the reader is about to learn, so you can write a summary on that.
One of the big takeaways here is that a development plan is a document outlining the current state of affairs, it identifies the immediate possibilities in front of you, and provides achievable strategies that everyone can understand and (hopefully) participate in. Wait… that could the topic of your introduction which you still need to go back and write!
So there you have it, that is how to write up a development plan. I would love to have others share examples of their plans. Just drop me an email and I can post a link to your work from this article.