Find Out What They Really Think Before You Plan!

What is the first step you should take to move your nonprofit organization to a higher level of performance and effectiveness, especially in fundraising and development? If your first thought is strategic planning, then you have a lot of company. Among the organizations we serve, many have embarked on some kind of strategic planning exercise this year.

However, if you want to maximize the productivity and impact of your strategic planning process, you should first conduct thorough and objective research into your organization. Through this process, you will learn how the institution is performing, and how its perceived, not only by those you consider part of your family, but also by those whose contact with the organization is less frequent and intense.

All of these constituents are current or potential stakeholders in your organization’s future success. They include those who benefit from the services your organization provides; those who support the organization financially; and even those who know something about the organization, but are involved only marginally or not yet at all.

Research will clarify or redefine the current baseline assumptions that drive your planning decisions.

Research into the experiences, perceptions, interests, and concerns of your organization’s constituents will provide a real-world database of facts and perceptions to clarify or redefine the baseline assumptions that drive your planning decisions. Without this timely information, your plan will lack credibility and provide diminished value.

Too often, we encounter organizations that wait until a capital fundraising campaign is imminent, and then rely on the campaign planning (feasibility) study to provide a reality check on the organization’s overall performance and position in the donor marketplace. The primary purpose of a campaign planning study, however, is to determine a winning strategy for the campaign: how much can be raised, and exactly how it can be raised.

If your aim is to advance the organization as a whole, then why not do your research when you have more time, and the stakes aren’t so high? Between campaigns, you can discuss the organization in a more relaxed setting without asking pointed and probing questions about major gifts, campaign leadership, etc.

In contrast to a planning or feasibility study, the approach we recommend is called a strategic development assessment. This multifaceted, in-depth exercise can cover more terrain, and provide greater insight and more information, than a traditional campaign planning study.

Components of the Strategic Assessment

  1. A detailed analysis of the development function (programs, personnel, procedures, etc.), based on a series of conversations with key personnel in the development office and related functions (planning, marketing, etc.).

  2. A self-evaluation of the board of trustees or foundation board by its own membership. This exercise may prepare the ground for future board development activities.

  3. Conversations with other members of the institutional family (employees, volunteers, physicians, etc.). These may take the form of personal interviews or focus groups.

  4. Conversations with other constituents or stakeholders who can provide some insight into the organization and its environment. These constituents may range from major donors and community leaders to customers.

  5. Research into the best practices of peer organizations. This process extends the inquiry to other organizations in your field who may be dealing with similar issues. (They may be more willing to help if you share the results of your research.)

The purpose of the assessment is not to get people to say what you expect them to say, or what you want to hear, but to find out what they really think and how they actually view your organization. This is best accomplished by trusted and experienced outside professionals with a unique objectivity and perspective. The results may be surprising and challenge the organization’s understanding of its position in the community.

With the benefit of timely and honest information, you’ll be in a stronger position to set a strategic direction for your organization that is firmly grounded in your current realities. A more effective plan is only one of the benefits: many of those who participate in the assessment and the planning process will have a keen interest in watching your plan unfold, and helping it to succeed.

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For more on Strategic Advancement, Aligning Your Resources to Attract Philanthropy, access Goettler Series Volume 12