Before coming to work for Mightycause, I spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector working for animal welfare. I’ve worked for one of the nation’s largest and most effective animal advocacy groups, The Humane Society of the United States, as well as much smaller operations such as animal shelters here in Alexandria, Va., and my hometown of Baltimore, Md. I’ve been involved in the strategic planning process many times before, at different sized organizations, in different roles, and at different levels. And now I’m sharing my hard-learned lessons with you to help make 2017 a banner year for your nonprofit.

Why Plan?

So much of the work we do at nonprofits is reactive. Nonprofits usually form to solve problems and that mindset can carry over into our work habits. We work last-minute and put in lots of overtime instead of plotting out our course and completing tasks ahead of time. We wait for problems to arise so that we can fix them instead of expending energy preventing problems. There are lots of reasons for this, including having limited resources, time and staff, and as a former nonprofit worker who spent years in the trenches, I totally get it. However, you can save you and your team lots of frustration and overtime by taking the time to put together a strategic fundraising plan.

Creating a fundraising plan will help you build on success and develop a plan to improve where it’s needed. Here are some of the benefits of taking the time to go through this process:

  • Finding the bright spots: In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath talk about “finding the bright spots.” This is just a cute way of saying that instead of fixing problems, you should clone success. So by sitting down, diving into your data from 2016 and creating a plan, you can clone bright spots from your previous year.

  • Identifying barriers: During this process, you’ll take a long hard look at what may have stood in the way of someone donating to your organization so you can knock down barriers one by one in 2017. What do I mean by “barrier”? A barrier could be a simple as a link on your website not working properly to misconceptions about the work your organization does.
  • Fine-tuning your messaging: Your message is what it’s all about so it’s vital to revisit your organization’s messaging each year to make sure it’s accurate, focused, relevant, and actually effective.
  • Getting real about financial goals: By creating a strategic fundraising plan, you’ll be able to plot a course from your first fundraiser to whatever amount you need to keep your lights on, pay your staff, keep your programs running, and keep doing your important work for another year.

Getting Started

So you’re sold on creating a strategic fundraising plan. Awesome! Here’s how you get started:

  • Identify your team: Your team may be obvious to you if you have a development staff, but don’t forget to pull in people around you who may have unique talents to bring to the table. You might have volunteers or board members who could be huge assets to your fundraising efforts, so leave no stone unturned when assembling your team. (That’s especially true if you consider yourself a team of one — pull in other people to help!)
  • Gather 2016 data: Pull everything you can from 2016: donations reports, social media analytics, goals for 2016, fundraising schedules, marketing plans. You’ll also want to calculate your donor acquisition and retention rates so you know where you stand at the beginning of 2017. (You can delegate parts of this to your team to divvy up the work.)
  • Take an inventory: What are your assets? What tools do you have at your disposal?
  • Schedule your first meeting: The agenda — 2016 post-mortem and planning for 2017.

2016 Post-mortem

Before you can move into goal-setting and planning for 2017, you’ve got to dig into the data and a take a hard look at your year in 2016. What worked? What didn’t? What “bright spots” can you clone? The post-mortem is one last, long look in the rearview mirror before driving your nonprofit forward.

Here’s how to run a 2016 post-mortem:

  • Set an agenda: You’ve got a lot of ground to cover and you’ll want to stay on track so it’s important to create and send out an agenda to your team beforehand. You’ll want to include much of the data you’ve gathered about 2016 on the agenda so your team has a chance to review it. That way, you won’t have to waste valuable time during your meeting figuring out what your top successes and not-successes were in 2016.
  • Set a constructive tone: Stay solution-focused. Everyone’s there to learn and improve, so even when you’re discussing something that didn’t work, keep it positive. You’re there to set your nonprofit up for success in 2017, not to discuss at length why Jerry always has the worst ideas.
  • Focus on the data: Stay focused on facts and data and try to keep feelings out of the process. Data won’t lie to you, whereas your feelings can keep you repeating campaigns year after year even if they aren’t successful because you’re emotionally invested in them.
  • Open the floor for discussion: You’ll want to schedule time into your meeting to hear from your team because a successful fundraising team is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Everyone’s perspective is important! (Pro tip: Include some discussion topics in your agenda so your team members have time to prepare.)
  • Develop actionable takeaways: To wrap things up, come up with some action items based on what you’ve reviewed and discussed. Make sure they’re specific! For instance, “we need to raise more money” is a terrible action item because that’s what this whole process is about whereas “update our website so that it’s clear how to make a donation from our homepage” is much more helpful.

Set Your Goals for 2017

Now that’s you’ve learned your lessons and identified your bright spots, it’s time to move into goal-setting. You’re probably already familiar with SMART goals but it never hurts to be reminded that any goals you set should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

Your goals will obviously be specific to your organization, but here’s some ground you want to make sure they cover:

  • Community growth: If you want more donations online, you need to increase the size of your online community. So be sure to set specific goals related to growing your community — your social media audience, your email list, your recurring donors, etc.
  • Donor acquisition: Once you’ve got new social media followers and email subscribers, how are you going to turn them into donors? Develop specific goals for the size of your donor pool. Don’t be afraid to get numbers-focused here: You have the data, so come up with an attainable goal for how many donors you would like to acquire in 2017. (Also, if you use a direct mail company, make it another goal to move away from paid acquisition and gain more donors organically.)
  • Donor retention: Okay, you got someone to join your email list and then they made a donation. Good work! Now, how are you going to keep them engaged so they continue to donate to your nonprofit? Look at what your donor retention rate was in 2016 and what you’d like it to be at the end of 2017. Also set some goals to find new and innovative ways to keep donors engaged in your work and opportunities to improve your stewarding.
  • Define your metrics: In order to set a SMART goal, it needs to be measurable, so for each goal you should have a clearly-defined metric by which you’ll measure your success.
  • Crunch the numbers: Make sure your fundraising goals are appropriate for your nonprofit’s overall financial situation. You already went through the budgeting process last year, so know your budget and what you’ll need to raise to stay in business for another year. Snap that larger number into smaller amounts and make sure your fundraising plan can realistically get you to your larger goal.

Write it out

Once you’ve met with your team, done your 2016 post-mortem, set your goals, and crunched all the numbers, you’ll need to sit down and put all of this information into a document. It doesn’t need to be fancy — open up Google Docs, or Microsoft Word, and create a simple document that has all of the information you need. You don’t have to re-report on your numbers from 2016 (since those were already in your agenda and meeting notes, right?!) so keep this document focused on big-picture goals and plans. You can get more specific about your campaigns when you meet with your team to plot them out.

Tips for Successful Strategic Planning

The process doesn’t stop once you’ve got a fundraising plan written out — it’s ongoing. We all get busy and bogged down in the day-to-day business of working for our nonprofit and that’s why it’s important to make plans to keep your plan moving so you can actually meet your goals. Here’s how to keep your team moving forward:

  • Meet with your team regularly: You’ll want to schedule regular meetings with your team to track your progress on big picture goals as well as check in on day-to-day tasks. You’ll also want to schedule meetings to plan campaigns as well as post-mortems to wrap up and evaluate each effort throughout the year.
  • Reassess and reevaluate: Your fundraising plan isn’t engraved in stone, so when you meet with your team and go over results from your fundraising efforts throughout the year, don’t be afraid to readjust your strategy as needed.
  • Document: Seriously — WRITE THINGS DOWN! Type up and distribute meeting notes, create marketing plans and schedules for each of your campaigns, document, document, document! The biggest benefit is that if you have a really successful campaign, you’ll have a ready-made template for success that you can clone if you write everything down. You may also be working with an entirely new team of people in 2018 (if you’re like most nonprofits and deal with some staff turnover) so if things are written down, you’ll have a file where new team members can review what you’ve done for past campaigns. It’ll also help you hold yourself and your team members accountable — if Susan swears she thought a deadline was on the 10th, but you’re sure you told her it was the 5th, you can easily check your notes to clear up any confusion. And if you write everything down, you won’t have to rely on your memory when it comes time to discuss what you did in 2018. This is a key part of keeping your team organized, informed and on-track so don’t skip it!
  • Set generous and realistic deadlines: Last-minute is the enemy of successful fundraising. So if you want to avoid a stressful last-minute scramble to get things done, you will need to assign tasks and set deadlines. And setting deadlines alone isn’t enough … you need to set thoughtful deadlines. If you pull deadlines out of thin air, you’ll find that a) your team won’t adhere to them because nobody likes an arbitrary deadline, and b) you can easily set yourself and your team up for failure with a poorly-conceived deadline. So how do you set deadlines? Well, each project is made up of tasks. And each task is made up of subtasks. Think about each task and sub-task and the work involved in each; determine how long it will realistically take a member of your team to complete everything. Then add in some padding, just in case, because the nonprofit world is nothing if unpredictable and you never know when your staff has to spend time dealing with some unexpected hiccup.
  • Work smarter, not harder: You don’t need to be a certified project management professional to implement a process that will help keep your team on-schedule and on-task. Develop a process that works for your team so you can feel confident that work will be completed on time. There are online project management tools like Asana, Trello and Basecamp that can be enormously helpful, or you can develop a more customized and manual process for managing your team’s work, but regardless of what you do, your team will work more confidently and is more likely to stay on-task with a strong process in place for actually getting the work done.

Fundraising Ideas for 2017

We’d like to ask you to make a resolution in 2017 to try something new. Here are some fundraising ideas you can use to ramp up your online fundraising efforts in the new year:

  • Try a peer-to-peer campaign: Peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns can be an excellent way to get your supporters engaged in your work, build grassroots support and bring in new donors organically.
  • Start project pages for special funds: A lot of nonprofits have restricted funds where money is earmarked for a specific purpose. But how many of us actively fundraise for those funds? I know the nonprofits I worked for didn’t always keep the till full. For instance, at an animal shelter I worked for, we had a special fund for animals that were in need of extra veterinary care. But we really only raised money for it when we had an animal come in with some injury or illness that needed treatment. We’d go crazy trying to fill the till so we could care for that animal, which really wasn’t very effective. So, if you have a special fund, try setting up a fundraiser page on Mightycause just for that fund and work on keeping it, well, funded.
  • Turn supporters into fundraisers: In general, people are awesome and always looking for new ways to help causes that are important to them. So plant seeds with your supporters to let them do the hard work of fundraising for you. Charitable birthday and wedding fundraisers can be incredibly successful, for instance. Be sure to let your supporters know that anyone can create a charitable fundraiser on Mightycause and encourage them to get involved in raising money for your cause!
  • Create fundraisers for specific programs: Your nonprofit has programs, right? Well, how about letting people donate specifically to your programs to help keep them going? Try creating Mightycause pages for your programs so people can support the services you provide that are most meaningful to them!
  • Consider “sponsorship” pages: This may not work for every nonprofit, but if your organization serves a particular demographic (say, children or animals), consider allowing your supporters to “sponsor” them by setting up Mightycause pages for them. Homeward Trails Animal Rescue uses this technique on Mightycause, setting up pages where people can donate toward animals coming to their rescue, and it’s been very successful for them. So why not try it out this year?
  • “Holiday” fundraisers: There are countless “special dates” calendars on the web (like this one) with days for nearly everything under the sun, from beans to Winnie the Pooh to umbrellas. Find “holidays” that apply to your nonprofit’s work and start a fundraiser or encourage your supporters to use those days to start a P2P campaign for your organization!

I recently hosted a webinar about planning your fundraising strategy that you can view here, with bonus material on getting matching grants and creating a communications plan. I hope this helps you get your ducks in a row for 2017, but if you need any help or have questions (whether technical or strategic), feel free to drop us a line at!

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