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6 Mistakes to Avoid When Creating a Development Plan

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Let me start by saying that I don’t think there are a ton of mistakes you can make with a development plan.

At its essence, it is an internal planning document, and it should be designed and written for your organization and your needs. Which means that as long as what you put on paper works for you and your organization, however that’s formatted, whichever sections that includes, however you think about your fundraising, then it’s a development plan.

That said, there are 6 big mistakes to avoid when creating your development plan.

1. Not having or finishing your plan.

Adrian Sargeant did some wonderful research and discovered that by simply having a development plan, nonprofits raised more money.

That’s right! The mere existence of a plan made for better fundraising.

Now, a development plan is not a small document. It takes a lot of work and a lot of mental energy to produce, and it can feel overwhelming.

But not starting or not finishing the plan is the biggest mistake you can make. If you never take the time or give yourself the space to think critically about your organization’s fundraising program, you’ll never grow.

2. Not using data analysis as the foundation of your plan.

Your boss or your board is asking for your fundraising plan, and they want it last Thursday.

The easiest thing to do is to throw onto paper the day-to-day tasks that keep your fundraising program chugging along. The status quo. A description of what your fundraising program is and does.

That isn't a development plan. A development plan is a strategy document. It exists to help you think critically about what’s working, what isn’t, and what you should do differently moving forward (and then analyze to see if it worked).

In order to create a strategy document, you need to understand the fundraising you’ve been doing to date. And you learn about that through your data.

Your data tell you so many stories about your donors, your revenue efforts, the effectiveness of your solicitations, what mediums you should be focusing on….

In other words, your data tells your fundraising story.

It just doesn’t scream your story from the rooftops. You have to do a little digging to pull it out.

As you well know, data can be interpreted in many different ways. And since every organization does its fundraising differently, keeping an open and curious mind when you start looking at data trends can help you figure out what’s really going on in there.

But what you do with that data…. That’s the fun part. You get to figure out the story from your data, but the solution for how to do it better is all creative problem solving on your end.

Fundraising is trial and error. But don’t go into your fiscal year blind—your data will tell you plenty about what’s working and what’s not so you can make smart and strategic adjustments to raise more money.

3. Not prioritizing one area for fundraising growth.

This is critical, especially for small nonprofits. You just can’t do it all—there aren’t enough hours in the day.

As you begin to put a fundraising plan on paper, you may find a number of fundraising areas that need extra love and attention.

Pick one per fiscal year to focus on and do it well. Get the results you were looking for.

Then move on to another fundraising priority.

Trying to overhaul a bunch of revenue streams all in one fiscal year will set you up for failure. Or burnout. And we need you in the nonprofit sector to change the world! Just do it one revenue stream at a time.

And don’t be afraid to note that in the plan itself so you can prioritize what you’re going to focus on next.

4. Not including a calendar component.

Have you ever looked at your calendar and wondered how on earth you were going to pull off your big annual event, getting a direct mail piece to the printer, and meet 3 grant deadlines in the same month?

Sometimes fundraising activities bunch up in certain months. That’s why you create a fundraising calendar in your development plan.

Since your development plan is a strategy document, it makes sense to catch this kind of problem early while you can still do something about it.

Adjust expectations for when direct mail pieces will drop. Space out events differently. There are plenty of pieces of your development plan that is within your control—use that control to create a schedule that doesn’t have you tearing your hair out.

5. Not creating an executive summary for your board.

Maybe you’ve experienced this: You come to your board to discuss the fundraising you need them to do, only to have them switch into problem solving mode and brainstorm how you should do the organization’s fundraising.

Their hearts are in the right place, but you know exactly what your fundraising program is for the year.

And that wasn’t the conversation you wanted to have with them.

Sharing an executive summary of your development plan with the board helps them understand:

a. There is a plan for fundraising for the year and your time is already taken—no new ideas needed!

b. There are concrete areas where you need your board members to help. You’ve even laid them out right here in the development plan.

You want your board’s buy in for your development plan, because you need your board to help you implement it. But there’s only so much detail your board members can absorb, especially since most of them aren’t fundraising professionals.

Share with them the broad brushstrokes so they’ll know you’ve put real, critical thought into this plan. And show them exactly where they fit in.

6. Not using the development plan to inform the budget.

Now, this isn’t a mistake with the development plan itself. This is a failure of process.

Ultimately, the budget reflects your revenue goals for the year. If it doesn’t align with your fundraising strategy, then you have a problem.

Because the development plan is your strategy. It’s where you’ve analyzed what you’ve done in the past and it’s estimating how much better your fundraising will be if you make some important changes and tweaks to your fundraising program.

You will be held accountable for meeting budget goals. You need to make sure your strategy will get you there.


Megan Amundson is a nonprofit consultant who trains and coaches leaders of small and medium-sized nonprofits to raise more money from individuals.

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