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Planning for your organization’s growth next year should begin now—and it should be bottom-up, rather than top-down.

We’ve all had that “aha” moment in the car, the shower, the pub. There’s nothing wrong with the great ideas and inspirations that can come to you seemingly from nowhere—but they are no substitute for real planning.

Ideally, you’re already doing multi-year planning, looking 2- to 3-years ahead and making adjustments to your written plan as you go along. But in a small shop with big goals, meaningful strategic planning can remain elusive.

Hard as it can be to prioritize, there’s nothing better you can do for your organization than commit to the discipline of strategic planning . . . and then taking your own plans seriously.

The good news, though, is that while it’s hard to make time for planning, it shouldn’t all fall on your shoulders as a nonprofit leader. A commitment to (and the process of) planning begins at the “top,” but much of the work should be spread throughout your organization.

Whether you are putting together a new strategic plan or updating and revising a current one, that work should happen from the bottom-up. Nonprofit leaders should not be telling everyone what they’ll need to do next year—how many events, how much major donor revenue, how many new foundations, etc.

The specific numbers and goals in your strategic plan should come from your employees—not from the mind of the executive alone.


What do you do at the top of the organization?

Your primary job, as a leader, is to cast the vision. You determine the tone, identity, and direction of your organization. You attract supporters—and you motivate and inspire your staff.

When casting that vision, you set expectations for where you will be or what you will achieve in 3, 5, 10 years. And then strategic organizational planning appends financials to that vision. If you distribute classroom materials, for instance, to schoolchildren in underprivileged communities, your goal might be to distribute 500,000 pencils and 50,000 notebooks per year in 50 communities across the country by 2025. Well, the growth from wherever you are now should be pretty straightforward and determining the costs of that growth should be somewhat straightforward (though much less precise).

Vision in hand, you share this vision with your staff, inspire them to get behind your goals, and solicit their input.

Then we get into the specifics of realizing the incremental and annual targets along the way. That part should be collaborative, inviting your staff to inform what is realistic and what it will take to get there. If you are operating, for instance, in several verticals and in multiples cities around the country, it’s up to your staff to tell you what’s possible.

Your leadership pushes them toward the vision; their on-the-ground knowledge tells you what’s possible.


So what does this look like?

Okay: you’ve cast a vision, and you’ve determined what you need to do and raise to get there. Now you ask your staff. Consider this from the development department.

We’re looking at next year’s budget and we need to increase from, say, $5 million to $7 million. Where is that additional $2 million going to come from?

You need to look at each fundraising vertical you do (direct mail, major gifts, events, foundations, and so on) and project growth in each one. Then ask the employees leading those areas if they can hit those goals.

If Bill raised $700,000 on his caseload last year, can he do $1 million this year? Simply telling Bill, “you need to raise a million this year” won’t go over well. It’s not only uninformed and unrealistic, it’s extremely bad for employee satisfaction (which a key factor hamstringing organizational growth!).

Here’s the right approach: “Bill, can you raise a million on your caseload this year?” Give him a target and let him figure it out. Bill might come back a few days later and let you know that his biggest donor just passed away and that’s going to set his caseload back . . . or maybe a donor he’s been cultivating for some time just sold a business and opened a family foundation. His response might be “I really can only do $850,000,” or he might tell you he can do more than $1 million, potentially covering for an unavoidable shortfall elsewhere.

The same goes for direct mail projections (is your executive team in the weeds on direct-mail models?), foundations, events, and so on in fundraising. And the same goes for programs: you want to reach this many more underserved youth or release this many more policy briefs. Ask if that’s possible—encouraging and inspiring your staff to push themselves!—and let realistic projections inform goals and vision.


Let me be clear: bottom-up planning should not open the door to mediocrity or stalled growth. This isn’t a chance for employees to plan only to renew or only to promise modest growth.

Your vision-casting should be inspiring, and it should motivate staff across the organization to dig deep, work hard, and fight for growth in service of a mission they love. That’s what we do in the industry.

If revenue growth isn’t happening and advancing your mission is slower than desirable, then you simply need to ask what’s off. A thorough audit process would help to uncover issues and inefficiencies, but there are two initial things to look for.

First, does your staff want to fight for the mission? Are they inspired by the vision your casting? If not, what can you do to improve that, to gain their trust and support?

Second, is everyone spending enough time on revenue-generating work? A key limiting factor that development departments suffer from is failing to invest in revenue-generating work. Leaders and major-gifts officers should be out in front of donors as much as possible. This is hard in small development shops where everyone wears multiple hats—but finding a way (whether it’s hiring, shifting responsibilities, adjusting goals) to make donor-facing work a priority will be pivotal for any organization.


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