The Ultimate Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning

nonprofit strategic planning

Get a free demo of the Bloomerang software.

Chances are, if you’re an executive or development director, you’ve been asked to create a development strategic plan.

It’s not difficult, but it’s not something most of us are taught. So it can be tricky to know where to begin.

When it comes to development planning, it’s important to begin at the beginning; not in the middle.

Sadly, too often development directors are asked to create a plan in a vacuum. Unrelated to organization-wide goals, realities of past fundraising and marketing experience, organizational culture and current resources.

These so-called development plans often get written, and then stuffed into a drawer. They become items checked off a list, time and again bearing no reality to what the organization even needs, let alone what it can handle.

Pointless exercise.

So… let’s look at how to make planning worth your while!

First, let’s Define our Strategic Planning Terms

Overarching Organizational Strategic Plan:

An organization-wide strategic planning process is one in which, ideally, board and staff engage together on a regular basis. Every three – five years is ideal (I recommend the shorter time frame).

“Organizations use strategic planning to provide a structured process to define success for an organization, determine the operational and programmatic steps to get there, and align resources and staff to achieve the goal within a given time frame. Strategic planning typically involves examining an organization’s intended impact and theory of change, and rigorous analysis of the organization’s internal capabilities, full program costs, external environment, and donor and beneficiary trends to identify opportunities with the greatest potential for impact.”

The Bridgespan Group

As staff and board engage in the process, they become committed to shared goals, measurable objectives, priorities for implementation, and to revisiting the organization’s strategies on an ongoing basis as internal and external environments change.

A good place to begin is with some type of “SWOT” analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) to get clarity on where you are today and how you’re perceived by both internal and external stakeholders.

It’s a great idea to hire an outside consultant to facilitate this process. It is extremely helpful to have some strategic management expertise in driving this process forward to a successful conclusion. If you can’t afford this, create a cross-organizational working group (board and staff) to build and monitor the process.

The next step is to ask key strategic questions that must be answered before you can build, grow or add/subtract any program initiatives. It’s a good idea to develop a formal process for addressing these questions. For example, you might have staff departments and board committees discuss various aspects of the mission over the course of a six to 12-month period.

Ultimately, your work will culminate in some sort of combined presentation that may highlight key issues for discussion at an upcoming staff/board retreat. This is not a final document yet; rather, it’s a draft that incorporates everyone’s best thinking up to this point. You still want stakeholder buy-in on all final decisions.

Finally, strategic planning should be continuous. The plan is a living document; a framework that must be flexible enough to adapt to changing times and circumstances. Plans must be used! They must be:

  • Turned into annual business plans (see below), with
  • Supporting plans (e.g., a development plan; a finance plan; a facilities plan) that assure every goal and objective is effectively met, and
  • Monitored on an ongoing basis, and
  • Adjusted as needed.

Annual “Business” Strategic Work Plan:

This is your organization’s overall plan to fulfill your mission. It includes your overarching goal (why you exist), your programs and services (what specifically you do) and specific, measurable objectives (how, when and where you’ll deliver on your promise). It has a time frame of one fiscal year.

IMPORTANT: Among your business objectives there should be one to “generate the voluntary support needed” to see your business plan through to fruition. That’s what your development plan grows out of.

A typical organization-wide annual business plan might include these components:

Mission Statement: WHY you exist.

Introduction: Outlines the process (e.g. “In April 2018, after a year of planning, the Board of Directors adopted our Three-Year Strategic Plan. This annual plan references that plan and includes all recommendations made by last year’s Committees, and the future plans of this year’s Committee chairpersons and staff. A self-evaluation of our progress will take place mid-year, and again by June 2021, and will be conducted by the Board and its Committees. The following summarizes major organizational objectives and specific activities planned for this fiscal year).

Objectives (these are broad brush categories intended to serve as examples only):

  1. Scope of Programs and Services (these generally flow from your mission statement)
  2. Priorities for Types of Programs and Services (listed in order of agreed-upon priority as per your overarching Strategic Plan)
  3. Priorities for Target Populations (these targets may remain for the duration of a 3-Year Strategic Plan or change as new needs arise)
  4. Locations and Facilities (this includes items like capital planning, renovation, accessibility, new systems, maintenance and whatever else is needed to optimally serve your constituents)
  5. Community Planning and Organization (this includes working with outside stakeholders to best identify and meet community needs)
  6. Advocacy and Public Policy (this includes commitment to not just meeting the service needs of your core individual constituents, but also achieving broader solutions to solving specific problems and informing policy makers)
  7. Branding/Marketing Communications (this is how you’ll reach target audiences in a manner that informs, engages, involves and motivates voluntary philanthropic support)
  8. Resource Development (this makes achievement of overall goals possible by generating diversified sources of support for current and future programs, through a multi-point strategy to increase annual operating income)

“Development” strategic plan:

This is a combined fundraising and marketing plan to generate the philanthropy needed to fulfill your organization’s mission. It speaks to the aforementioned objectives in your business plan regarding “Branding/Marketing Communications” to generate voluntary support (time, talent and treasure), and “Resource Development” to diversify sources of income (contributed and earned).

Now, let’s Look at How your Different Plans Interact

Without a business plan in place, you can’t effectively build a development plan. Because you wouldn’t know where you were going. So if your organization doesn’t have an annual strategic business plan, start there. It’s your vision, mission and values – all laid out in an annual plan. It’s also your “case” for philanthropic support. The “why” of your “what.”

NOTE: As stated above, it’s good practice to review your overarching strategic plan at least once every three years. Often culminating with a retreat incorporating board and staff input. Even with this three-year plan, you’ll want to restate your specific goals, objectives and strategies annually in a business plan. Each year’s annual plan will have a new budget and a new philanthropic goal. Without this in place, it’s impossible to build a reasonable development plan. You don’t want to pick a fundraising number out of thin air!

Without a solid development plan in place, there’s nothing to guide your fundraising and marketing efforts. You have no way to tell if your nonprofit is on track to meet your goals. A good plan keeps you focused and protects you (and your staff) from getting overloaded with too many tasks. If you simply try to do anything and everything that gets thrown at you, nothing gets executed well. Not only do you get mediocre results; you burn your staff out in the process. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Okay. So your business plan grows out of your organization-wide strategic plan.  And your development plan grows out of your business plan. That’s where you begin.

5 Steps to Build Your Development Strategic Plan

We’ve already defined our terms, noting the differences and interdependence between your (1) overarching, organization-wide, multi-year strategic plan; (2) annual business strategic plan, and (3) development (combined fundraising and marketing) strategic plan.

Now, we’re going to look at the step-by-step process for building a useful development plan to guide your aligned fundraising and marketing activities so they support your organization’s overarching goals and philanthropic support objectives.

1. Know Your Development Plan Goal(s)

This should be simple. Hank Rosso, Founder of The Fundraising School, famously said “Fundraising is servant to philanthropy.”  

In other words, the only reason you do fundraising is to meet your philanthropic goals. It’s not an end in itself.

What are your philanthropic goals? If your organization doesn’t need philanthropy to survive and thrive, then you don’t have any. You can stop right here.

However… most nonprofits can’t exist without some form of voluntary support in the form of contribution income and/or volunteer time. The amount of voluntary support you need is your philanthropic goal.

Some organizations will have to raise 100% of their budget from philanthropy; others maybe only 10%. Some organizations will need to recruit hundreds of direct service volunteers to fulfill their mission; others maybe only a few.  

Whatever your needs for time, talent and treasure, that’s what your “development plan” goal is. You can break this into mini-goals if you have different campaign buckets (e.g., annual, endowment, capital).

It might look like this:

Goal 1: Reach financial objective of Annual Campaign and build prospect/donor base.

Goal 2:  Develop and implement a planned legacy-giving program (major outright endowment gifts, bequests and irrevocable deferred gifts) to endow priority programs and reach financial objective of Endowment Campaign.

Goal 3: Reach financial objective of Capital Campaign to meet facility and special project needs.

Goal 4: Develop and implement an integrated marketing communications plan to generate positive top-of-mind awareness among key client, volunteer and donor constituents about the unique ways the organization can best meet their needs among other marketplace competitors.

2. Get Input from Key Stakeholders

You can’t meet your goals unless everyone responsible for getting there is on board with both the goals and the objectives for getting there.

Too often, the fundraising goal becomes a function of balancing the budget. The development staff and/or development committee is told: “Go raise $XXXXXX because that’s the gap between our projected income and projected expenses.”

Key development players (staff and volunteers) should have input into setting the fundraising goal.

There are a number of ways to seek input from your stakeholders:

  1. Past fundraising results input. If you’re being tasked with raising $1 million this year, and last year your organization raised $100,000, something is out of whack.  
  2. Past experience input. What strategies have worked/not worked for your nonprofit in the past? Do a bit of a SWOT analysis of your fundraising and marketing activities to ascertain what you can build on, and what you should maybe rely less upon.
  3. Staff input. Why not ask team members to draft the parts of the overall plan that pertain to their specific work? Not just goals, but measurable objectives, strategies, dates to begin/complete the work, and who else (staff or volunteer) needs to be involved. Then sit down together to incorporate it into the larger plan. This helps staff understand the big picture, which makes their work more meaningful and reduces staff turnover.
  4. Board input. Development is very much a team sport, and your board are critical players. It’s their decision where you’re headed, and how you’ll get there. Will you float (status quo) or sail (build and grow)? Your board must approve your plan and agree to play their part.
  5. Consultant input.You might find it helpful to bring in an outside professional to conduct stakeholder interviews to determine what’s most important to your board and how to get everyone on the same page when designing your fundraising/marketing plan.

3. Determine Your Key Fundraising and Marketing Activities

It’s tricky to establish objectives without first deciding what activities you’ll engage in.

Otherwise, the sky’s the limit and you risk being all over the map.

Not to mention at the mercy of any Tom, Dick or Harry who comes along in the middle of the year and decides you should embark on something you’ve never done; something that wasn’t on your plan. There are lots and lots of effective fundraising and marketing activities, but you may not necessarily be able to accomplish them all in this particular year.

Just as people say “choose your battles,” make sure you are reasonable – and just a bit ambitious – in the activities you choose to incorporate into your plan.

Begin by looking at last year’s activities.  Again, do a bit of a SWOT analysis. Where are you strong? Where are you weak? What new opportunities might you have this year? Where are you threatened with cutbacks and/or other resource issues? What do you want to continue, and what should you abandon so you can try something that might be more effective?

There’s no one right mix of activities for every nonprofit. In Step 4, below, I outline the key “buckets” of activity areas into which most nonprofit fundraising and marketing fall. Here I just want to give you some ideas of potential activities that might fit within those buckets.

REMEMBER: Development is a long-term game. It’s about building relationships with folks over time. You never want to forget that in building your plan. The basics matter. You need to double down on solid fundamentals. I often say: “You can’t riff without a guitar.” At the same time, there’s always pressure to do just a little something new every year.

Here are a few areas of potential growth (none of them far out) for your consideration:

Major gift fundraising. It’s tried and true, and the most cost-effective way to fundraise. If you’re not doing it systematically, consider making this a formal part of your plan.

Donor-centered stewardship. If you don’t yet have a formal, written “Donor Love and Loyalty Plan” to build the personal relationships that will assure you’ll renew and upgrade more donors, put this into this year’s plan. There are lots of things you can do, but begin with a solid donor acknowledgement program. Then get out there and try to meet personally with top donors and key influencers. If you work at an organization with broad geographic reach, consider “meeting” folks via Skype. Do this one-to-one for major donor prospects, and consider “town hall” meetings for others. It helps to put a face to a name.

Lapsed donor retention. It’s easier, and more cost-effective, to renew a current donor than acquire a new one. Make sure you have a specific, written plan to keep your current donors close. Simply keeping lapsed donors on your list, sending them letters, inviting them to events and hoping for the best is not a strategy. In fact, it’s generally a recipe for failure. Don’t be passive! Have a plan so if your donors do lapse, you don’t let the grass grow under their feet before you attempt to renew them.

New donor acquisition and retention. When folks don’t know you exist, or when they’ve barely met you, you need strategies to demonstrate your relevance and trustworthiness. Then you’ve got to show this again. And again. And again. In places where folks who share the values your organization enacts are likely to be found. What do you plan to do to acquire new donors this year? And what will you do to keep them?

Online fundraising. More and more folks are accessing information, making purchases, and communicating with their networks online. Are you where your people are? This is an area where adding some budget can be a smart strategy. Especially if you’re among the too many nonprofits who suffer from a technology gap that’s creating a chasm between today’s donors and the organizations they’d like to support. Consider getting some expert help! There are numerous excellent tools you can buy. Determine what functions you need most (e.g., branded online donation pages; custom thank you pages; built-in email marketing; online advocacy, events management, donor retention dashboard, social media interface, mobile apps, reporting and integration with other software). See here and here for reviews of different options.

Peer-to-peer fundraising. If you’re seeking to grow your donor base and/or upgrade existing donors, P2P is a great way to engage constituents online and leverage the power of their social network to help your organization reach a broader audience and boost contribution income. In fact, a small donor can be the equivalent of a major donor by virtue of generating gifts from their friends.

Monthly giving. This is one of the most cost-effective strategies for retaining and upgrading donors. This is an area where a little outsourcing can make your life easier, and assure you have all the tools you need to succeed.

4. Establish SMART Objectives

Your objectives support your goals. You may have many objectives for a single goal. Again, they’re the how, when and where you’ll get to your why.

Each objective should adhere to the SMART criteria:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Assignable – specify who will do it.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Break your objectives into strategic “bucket” areas, for example:

  • Annual Gifts
  • Legacy Gifts
  • Capital Campaign
  • Special Events
  • Grants
  • Business Sponsors
  • Marketing Communications
  • Public Relations
  • Infrastructure and database

Every strategic area is supported by specific, measurable objectives that get you to your ultimate philanthropic goal in that area.

Your annual gift objectives might look like this:

Goal 1.

Reach financial objective of Annual Campaign and build prospect/donor base.

Objective 1: Renew 70% of ongoing donors

Objective 2: Upgrade 30% of ongoing donors

Objective 3: Renew 40% of new donors

Objective 4: Reinstate 40% of lapsed donors

Objective 5: Identify 60 new major gifts prospects

Objective 6: Acquire 600 new donors

Objective 7: Secure 100% Board participation

Objective 8: Secure 100% Program Committee participation

Objective 9: Expand staff participation

Objective 10: Convert 10% of direct services volunteers to donors

5. Establish Specific Tactics to Support Each Objective

Every objective is supported by specific tactics with assigned time frames and executors (e.g., Acquire 100 donors through fundraising event; complete in June/July; by director of development, special event committee and database manager).

It’s imperative you hold people accountable for every strategy. Consider every tactic a milestone along the way. Use these milestones to regularly assess your progress and refine your plan, as needed.

Here’s a snippet of a plan under the “Annual Giving” area, just to give you an idea of how this might look:

nonprofit strategic planning


There are five steps to build your strategic development plan. Use this as a checklist, and go through each step one at a time.

  • Know your development plan goals

This is WHY you’re endeavoring to facilitate philanthropy in the first place.

  • Get input from key stakeholders

This assures you’ll have a team, aligned around a common goal.

  • Determine your key fundraising and marketing activities

This organizes your plan, keeps you focused, helps you play to your strengths, and highlights where you may need to add resources

  • Establish SMART objectives

This is the HOW that gets you to your WHY. Every objective is measurable, so you can track your progress and know when you get to success.

  • Establish specific tactics to support each objective

This is the WHO, WHAT, WHERE and WHEN. Every tactic is clearly outlined, is assigned and has a deadline.

To your success!

Stay Together - How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty

Get an inside look at the Bloomerang software.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad
By |2019-03-20T10:14:07-04:00March 27th, 2018|Nonprofit Management, Strategic Planning|

One Comment

  1. Katherine Silvas August 16, 2018 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    Claire, as a practitioner— a chief executive of a non-profit — I recommend that you begin with the end in mind, not at the beginning. With the end in mind you can more easily measure your progress toward your goal. Time is a huge factor for nonprofits. I highly recommend focusing on what your end goal is and stepping backwards. Thanks.

Leave A Comment