Strategic Planning and Philanthropy

How Important is Strategic Planning for Philanthropy?

By Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE, President & CEO, Capital Venture

“Chesire Puss,” Alice began, “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice, “so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you want to go,” said the cat.

—Lewis Carroll

Too often, even organizations that understand the value of long-range, strategic planning on an organizational basis, fail to utilize these same strategies in their development program.  Fundraising is often done in a haphazard way because, like Alice, development officers sometimes have no idea of where they want to be.  They are caught up in the day-to-day management of a myriad of fundraising activities, many of which are unproductive or counter-intuitive to building lasting donor relationships.

First, the organization must commit to strategic planning at an organizational level if development planning is to be successful.  Second, the organization must allocate sufficient funding to the development office, allowing them to hire staff leaders who have the ability to do development planning.  And the development office must utilize good techniques to develop its own plan.

Many of the techniques that apply to organizational strategic planning can be easily translated into development training.

Assessment– A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the development office is a good place to start, analyzing the internal strengths and weaknesses of the development office and evaluating the external threats and opportunities for development.  A full-blown development audit is often the most useful tool in evaluating past successes and future opportunities.  The audit can provide comparisons with national, regional or local statistics of similar organizations and provide benchmarks to measure the development plan’s success.

Building Consensus is also critical in the development planning process.  Involving key stakeholders in the development program—board members, volunteers, management staff, program staff, donors and the entire development staff—is critical.  Just as in strategic planning, each development goal should be assessed in light of its relevance to the organization’s mission and vision.

Development plans should focus on a limited number of goals and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-defined) objectives should be listed for each goal.  The operational development plan also needs to contain strategies and action steps for each objective.  A measurement system must be established with someone responsible for its implementation and monitoring.

Why do organizations resist allocating the time necessary to do development planning?

CEO’s and development officers are often under a great deal of pressure to raise money quickly.  Entrepreneurial board members who are shrewd business people are often accustomed to working on the basis of instant decisions, and may want the development office to just “go out and do it” without adequate planning.  Development officers may be so caught up in keeping their heads above water that they do not have the time to plan.

   “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”                                                                                                                            –Albert Einstein

How do we convince CEO’s and Board members that they need to be a part of the development planning process?

A CEO or board chair from a highly respected and successful nonprofit can often convince a struggling CEO of the value of strategic planning for development.  Leaders want their opinions to matter, but may feel that development is not their area of expertise and may want to spend their time on organizational planning, which they are generally more comfortable with.  Development officers need to help their leadership reach a comfort level with philanthropy and convince them that their leadership insights are critical to the development program.

How do development officers assure that their plans are truly strategic and that they will be implemented?

A system to monitor the plan is critical.   A leader must be assigned to monitoring the plan on a regular basis, holding accountable all those who are involved in the implementation of the plan, and being prepared to make adjustments to the plan when necessary.

Assuring that the plan is future-focused at each step of the process is essential.

William Sturtevant (1997) quotes Victor Hugo:

“The future has several names.

For the weak, it is impossible.

For the fainthearted, it is unknown.

For the thoughtful and the valiant, it is ideal.

The challenge is urgent, the task is large, the time is now.”


The Nonprofit Resource Network is building a repository of online resources needed routinely by employees working in the not-for-profit arena.

Return to Resources
Scroll to top