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I used to joke with my friend in school that once I wrote the first paragraph of a paper, the paper was done. The first paragraph is the summary—it announces what’s coming, where you can expect to go, and the general conclusion you’ll reach. In 4-6 simple sentences, the paragraph wrote the paper. She’d ask, “Did you finish that 10-page paper?” And I’d say, “No, but I wrote the first paragraph, so basically.”

The same is true of an annual development plan. Write the plan, the rest will come.

The planning phase of development work is one which is easy to skip. We have work to do now. There are grants due next week. Donors to speak to tomorrow. How can I spend weeks or months honing a plan talking about 10 months from now?

The answer is that the plan is worth the effort. The plan is the conductor of the symphony, guiding the simultaneous performances of a variety of instruments. Here is where foundations come in. Then we bring in events. In the background, digital campaigns. And then, the violins, er, major gifts.

The plan is also the math—we are raising $X this year: $Y will come from here; $Z comes from here by this date; and so on. I like to think of the plan as the point where art and math meet. It describes how to use the art to make the math whole.

Here are 10 tips to make the plan count:

  1. Plan for a full fiscal year. Make it align with your budget.
  2. Use your plan from last year as a starting point.
  3. It should make sense from a micro and macro level. You can have 12 great tactics, but they shouldn’t all happen in the same week in January.
  4. Make it measurable. What good is a plan if you don’t have a way of knowing if it’s working?
  5. Make it add up. Your plan should clearly tell you where all the revenue for your operating budget is coming from.
  6. Plan to plan—build it into your plan to start planning for the next year. (I know, this one really risks revealing an obsession for planning, but it is valuable.)
  7. Get your team on board. Not every staff member holds every piece of work, but it benefits everyone to understand the full vision.
  8. Don’t stress about the format. It just needs to be clear to you and your team. It doesn’t have to be presentable at the Smithsonian. (Unless you fundraise for the Smithsonian.)
  9. Look at it regularly to make sure you are on track.
  10. I cannot emphasize this enoughchange the plan when you need to.

This last point is important; it is the elephant in the planning room. What if something small or major happens that disrupts the plan? What if, say, in the middle of the year, all of your events have to suddenly go virtual? Well, here is the beauty of the plan: it should change. And you are less shaken by singular issues, large or small, when you have a solid grounding in a larger strategy. 

And this confidence is critical. We operate in a profession tied to unknowns—variables in the economy, the desires and interests of donors, and a world of extenuating circumstances. But if you write a good plan, you can control your strategy, you can determine which tactics work, and you can know when you need to adjust.

There are more than a couple idioms about what happens when man plans—I have heard them, too. Pave your plans with more than good intentions—with data, strategy, and benchmarks—and you’ll thank yourself later.

Shira Sarfati

Shira Sarfati

Shira Sarfati is the Director of External Affairs at Avodah