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How to Activate Your Strategic Plan for Fundraising Success

By: CFA

fundraising success with nonprofits

Reading your nonprofit strategic plan, I bet you will discover that philanthropy touches every section as it should. After all, a strategic plan identifies the impact an organization seeks to make along with the philanthropic resources required to achieve fundraising success. I would further wager that if you shared your plan with a major donor, it would inspire confidence in your organization and lead to deeper engagement and investment.

Benefits of Strategic Plans to Fundraising

Development professionals love strategic plans because they provide ready access to goal-oriented language for grant applications, solicitation letters, and prospect conversations. When I worked at The University of Chicago, my first initiative was our strategic plan which became our team’s field guide and provided metrics for which we could aim. Another benefit is volunteer engagement. When Board members or donors do not know how to engage in an organization, being a part of the strategic planning process allows them to learn more about the organization and align their passions and expertise with their needs.

What the Expert Says: Q&A with Kathy Graves

I talked with strategic planning expert and Creative Fundraising Advisors (CFA) Partner Kathy Graves of Parenteau Graves about how nonprofits can activate their strategic plans to help improve fundraising results. 

Liz Jellema: How do you recommend organizations measure development success within the strategic plan? 

Kathy Graves: First of all, development is only one facet of strategic planning. Secondly, while KPIs (key performance indicators) are important, numbers are not everything. The actual measurement of success is how many people maintain and deepen their engagement with and commitment to your organization as you live into your strategic plan. It helps to be more expansive in how you measure success. 

LJ: Should the strategic plan always push development to raise more dollars? 

KG: Most plans aim to raise more money, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to have an impact, to improve our world. It’s vital to name the result you seek before discussing how much to increase fundraising. Your strategy doesn’t have to be about raising more every year. It’s more important for philanthropic dollars to implement meaningful change. During the pandemic, some organizations saw new service areas grow exponentially and raised more dollars to deliver them. But many organizations are returning to or revisiting their original vision. For example, our human services clients find it important to stabilize lives by providing food and housing. Still, they are raising money to address systemic barriers that can lead to more significant permanent improvements for people. 

LJ: Many strategic plans are three or five years long. How do you recommend an organization’s Board and staff stay engaged and adjust for continuous improvement?

KG: Strategic planning is like personal training. You don’t stop exercising when you achieve your goal. Likewise, organizations cannot consider the strategic plan as a finished project and tie a bow on it. You must keep putting it at the center of your daily work. 

Ensure a few staff members are the key inside drivers—leaders who activate, monitor, and report progress. Everyone from entry staff to Board members owns the plan, but ultimately it needs key leadership to push it forward. 

The bottom line is that if you haven’t looked at the plan in three months, that’s a red flag. Set aside time monthly, quarterly, and annually for review. I also suggest that the plan be discussed at every Board meeting—share metrics and KPIs manageable for organizations to obtain and essential for organizational leaders to measure.

LJ: How can you use the plan to engage your major donors? 

KG: People want to give to success. One measurement of success is that you have a clear plan. Have confidence in your plan and show what you’ve accomplished.

A strategic plan is a terrific outreach tool. Utilize the plan as a runway for conversation. You might ask to sit down and share your progress with a prospect once you complete a one-year review. During the meeting, point to places where a prospect might provide dollars or expertise to help your organization reach its metrics and goals.

When you remain confident in your mission and plan, it will instill confidence in your donors that you can utilize their funds well. 

LJ: What formats have you seen work best for organizations to share their strategic plan? 

Do not send anyone a 28-page document! The operating plan can be long and detail-oriented, but that’s not what you’ll show most people. Brevity illustrates that you know what you’re doing and where your organization is going. Summarize your organization’s mission, vision, values, and goals on one page. I coach our clients to focus on three-to-five goals that are going to be the most critical drivers of success. 

Final Thoughts

Strategic plans are helpful when talking to prospects to illustrate that your organization has a plan and is acting on it. Are you prepared to share your plan with your Board and prospects? Reach out to CFA to learn more about our strategic planning services. We would enjoy helping your organization develop its next strategic plan. Contact us today!

Check out these sample nonprofit strategic plans:

The McNay | Cookie Cart | Hennepin Theatre Trust | Everybody Dance LA


Liz Jellema

Liz Jellema

Chief Operating Officer, CFA

Liz oversees CFA’s operations, culture, values, talent, marketing communications, and financial performance. Liz joined CFA from the University of Chicago where she served as Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives for the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the Booth School of Business. Liz enjoys translating strategy into growth for CFA’s portfolio of mission-driven clients.

Kathy Graves

Kathy Graves

Partner, Parenteau Graves

Kathy heads Parenteau Graves’s strategic planning. She is an award-winning writer, co-author, teacher, and recipient of the Changemaker Award from ARC Twin Cities. Prior to forming Parenteau Graves, Kathy served as marketing and public relations director for The Minnesota and Virginia Operas and on the staff of U.S. Senator Gary Hart. She also was the arts writer for the Southwest Journal for seven years and a Mondale Policy Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.