Ensuring Your Future: A Partnership of Thoughtful Planning and Successful Fundraising

November 19, 2002 – by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

I frequently encounter organizations that are having a difficult time raising money (no surprise to those of us in the nonprofit world); and, when we begin exploring the reasons for the difficulty, it’s not long before I discover that these organizations don’t have any clear plan for the future.

Pretend I’m a potential donor. When I ask, “What do you need the money for?” what will be your answer?

Can you only tell me about the upcoming crisis, how hard it is to pay the rent each month, how your staff works for peanuts, how difficult it is to get grants, and on and on?

Or, can you paint a compelling picture of how you plan to change the world (or at least your part of it) over the next few years.

Do you excite me with promised results, well-thought-out programs, a defendable budget and a way that I can make a meaningful difference?

Which approach is more likely to motivate my giving?

To raise major gifts, your organization has to know where it is going and how it will get there.

As a fundraising consultant and former Development Director, I can testify that it is much, much easier to raise funds when you have:

  • a long-range vision of what good you want to accomplish,
  • a clear picture of how your constituents (donors and clients) will benefit from this vision, and
  • a well-thought-out plan to get there.

I once took a job at an environmental advocacy organization that planned its programs in four-month cycles.

Now, while that method served this group just fine in some respects, it was very difficult to build a major gifts program around activities scheduled in that short timeframe (for all of the reasons listed below). It wasn’t until the Board adopted a new strategic plan that we were able to start growing our major gifts.

Here are a few of the ways that long-range planning can help your fundraising:

It takes time to develop your donors.

Most donors don’t make significant gifts at your first meeting. It takes time to build a relationship with donors and identify what motivates them to give. It can take months, maybe even years, to so thoroughly engage a donor in a particular aspect of your work that they are ready to make a major gift.

Imagine what would happen if just as your donor was ready to write that check, your programs headed-off in a whole new direction.

A well-thought out strategic plan is the foundation of a compelling case for support.

In order to create this plan, your staff and board need to do some serious work. You’ll need to research the needs and opportunities in your community and make some predictions about the future. You’ll critically assess the capacity of your own organization and determine the unique contribution it can make. Finally, you’ll set objectives and design the best way to reach them. All of this is essential to your ability to make a compelling case to a donor.

Donors are excited by future possibilities.

Donors give to realize THEIR dreams. While they have to know that you’ve done great work in the past, they are usually giving to support the work you are about to do. If you don’t know what that future work is, it’s pretty hard to convince someone else to support it. This excitement extends to your Board as well. If they are passionate about the future, Board members are much more likely to give and more likely, as well, to participate in the acquisition of major gifts.

A strategic plan helps you turn down those pet-project gifts that don’t support your strategic direction.

A long-range plan will help you know when to say “No” to a donation. While no one likes to turn down money, taking money for something that isn’t consistent with your organization’s strategic objectives not only diverts time and resources from critical work, it can generate serious divisions in your organization. If you commit your program staff or Board to projects they never planned on doing, it won’t be long before they stop cooperating with your fundraising efforts.

A long-range view allows you to seize opportunities when they arise.

Even if a particular program isn’t up and running yet, if you know that this is an area that will be a future focus of your organization, you can confidently seize that funding opportunity just as soon as you spot it. I’d even venture to say that it is pretty difficult to even see that something might be an opportunity if you don’t have that long-range perspective.

Major gifts that come through foundations are often subject to a specific timeline.

Major gifts from individuals often come through their family foundations or donor advised funds. While some foundations or trusts have great flexibility on when they award funds, others are locked into an annual grant-making calendar. If the trustees only get together twice a year to consider proposals, you need to ensure that the program that your funder agreed to support back in January will still be around for that critical June meeting.

Whether you call it a strategic plan or framework, having one is essential for successful major gift fundraising. So, if you want to have a successful long-term major gifts program, and your nonprofit doesn’t have a long-term plan for the future, it’s time to start agitating for one right away.

This article first appeared in Major Gifts Review at www.CharityChannel.com.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.