Great Fundraising Success or Falling Far Short? The Difference Is in the Planning
The great composer Leonard Bernstein has been quoted as saying, “To accomplish great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”
Bernstein would have been aghast — as we were — to read this proclamation on the website of a particular independent school about its strategic planning process:
“We are excited to share with you the product of 18 months of collaboration between the board of trust, the parents, faculty, and staff, alumni and students.”
Ouch! It took a year-and-a-half to plan for five years. That is just too long.
The website continued to outline the school’s process:
“The next step included holding a two-day retreat to explore the topics brought out of the survey to craft these six over-arching goals.”
Two days? That also is too long. And six large priority areas? Again, just too much. Let us see how we could have done this better.
For an independent school, I recommend a three- to five-month strategic planning process, depending on the institution’s internal calendar. The only time I recommend a longer process is in higher education, where things can move a bit slower, especially when you engage academics and other constituents.
A two-day retreat has many setbacks. I have yet to meet anyone who has engaged in a full-day planning retreat — much less two days — and said it was time was well spent. Usually what happens is that on day two, or even at the end of day one, fatigue sets in, the loudest voices prevail and participants start agreeing just so they can escape.
To be candid, the caliber of the board — or planning committee — that nonprofits embrace would not have a two-day block of time to take away from their work anyway.
Then, there is the intricacy of working from surveys. They can offer great insights but must be viewed as just one tool in discerning needs and solutions. The strategic planning process needs to allow ideas to germinate over time and include vision casting by the organization’s leadership. Essential objective data has to be provided and considered. Otherwise, the group could find itself swayed more by the opinions expressed in the survey than is practical.
When I work with independent schools, for example, I actually have folks talk with the first- and second-graders. It is not unusual for their top priority to be a continuously flowing chocolate fountain in the lunchroom. And while I can embrace this concept, it should not become the school’s priority.
I always caution groups to look at surveys from constituents (as well as focus groups and personal interviews) as one part of the toolbox. Cull information from the surveys and integrate that into the rest of the resources to discern the most important insights.
Finally, I recommend that organizations plan using a rule of five – no more than five priority areas, goals, etc. This is magical and forces a discipline that results in actionable results.
Too often, the strategic planning process that nonprofits embrace is more like a for-profit approach. It involves a small group working from a pre-determined outcome. The group fails to reengage its key constituents and show them that it values their input. And it also makes the mistake of not analyzing and researching its data.
The strategic plan for a nonprofit is not an operational plan and does not replace financial, program, fundraising or communications plans. Its goal is to set priorities, determine what is important, and outline what should stay and what should go.
How an organization approaches strategic planning is important — and it shows in the results.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.