There are troubled waters ahead. Here’s how you can map your course

There are troubled waters ahead. Here’s how you can map your course

With a looming cost of living crisis driven by rising inflation and interest rates there is little doubt that fundraising faces another significant challenge. Having just come out the other side of the pandemic, fundraisers now need to brace for the next challenge.

This time however I think we face more difficult operating conditions to those of the pandemic. Without wanting to sound a bit doom and gloom I do think we need to understand what we face so that we can the build a strategy to see our way through the next 2-3 years.

There are several reasons why I think things are going to be tougher this time.

Firstly, as the cost of living crisis begins to really take hold a lot of charities are going to face an increased demand for their services.

Secondly, inflation means that the end cost of delivering these services will increase and organisations will need to find more revenue to deliver existing services to beneficiaries and more still to meet any increase in demand.

Next, there is the impact on fundraising. This will include increased costs of fundraising, the real value of donations falling and the fact that donor attrition will very likely increase. To that you can add in a tougher acquisition environment.

Furthermore, when your organisation is looking for more funds to deliver services there is a better than even chance that they will turn to fundraising to provide it!

Is this the perfect storm and if so, how do we as fundraisers chart a course through this to ensure that our beneficiaries continue to get the support they need?

It is going to be a challenging time, but experience tells us that there is a path through all of this and that you can not only survive but thrive in such a difficult environment.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007/08 whilst different in origin brought similar challenges for fundraisers and there were several things that I took away from that experience which I’d like to share with you that helped organisations I worked with during that economic crisis.

What are these key success factors that will help you and your organisation thrive throughout these challenging times? I think there are four in particular:

  1. Strategic planning
  2. Maintain investment in fundraising
  3. Staffing and resources
  4. Leadership

Once you apply these the many more tactical and operational opportunities become much easier to implement.

In this piece I am going to focus on the importance of strategic planning and its core components. I’ll look at the others in follow up articles.


There is one thing that I think all successful organisations have in common. A strategic plan. This sets their direction for the future. It defines where they are going and how best to get there. A strategy is a series of actions to meet specific goals or results. Successful organisations really understand where they want to go and how to get there because they have put a great deal of thought into their strategy.

A plan brings discipline and direction to your operations; it makes it much easier to meet your goals and react to specific external factors that may put your plans at risk. It allows an organisation ask the question ‘If something happens, how do we respond?’ and be prepared for unforeseen challenges that may come up during the period of the plan.

Fundraising is no different from the rest of the organisation – a good fundraising strategy will help ensure you are able meet your goals, successfully deliver revenue to the organisation and be prepared for any eventualities that might occur.

Four years ago, a client of mine embarked on their first fundraising strategy a plan I worked with them to develop. It is a five year plan and by the end of the fourth year they have exceeded every target they set and raised close to $100 million over the period. They did this by taking time to develop a good plan that they then followed through on. They thrived during the pandemic because their plan allowed them to manage the risks and find ways to overcome them.

Of course, fundraising does not operate in isolation of the rest of the organisation. If fundraising does not meet its targets that has a direct knock-on effect to programs and specifically your beneficiaries.

It is therefore critical that fundraisers work with the CEO, Board and Executive to establish the needs of the organisation and coordinate the role of fundraising to meet those needs plus the investment required to achieve your goals.

When I develop a strategic plan for fundraising there are five elements that I always include:

  • The case for support
  • A fundraising audit
  • The strategic plan
  • The supporting financial forecast/budget
  • An operational or work plan for each member of the team

Why are these important and what do they do to give you a better chance of successful fundraising during difficult and challenging economic times? Let’s take them one by one.

The Case for Support

This is the foundation stone of your strategy. It defines who you are as an organisation; why you exist. It answers the fundamental questions of why a donor should give to your organisation.

  • What is the problem or need that your charity exists to solve and how much do you need to solve it? Who or what are the beneficiaries?
  • What evidence can you provide to show that there is a problem to be addressed?
  • In what way is your organisation qualified to meet and solve that need?
  • What are the benefits of giving to your organisation; how will the gift be used and what outcomes and impact can you show that benefit those you help?
  • If you (or the donor) do nothing, what are the consequences?

These are five straightforward looking questions but it normally takes a day workshop with key people in an organisation to work through these so we can develop a strong case for support that fundraisers can successfully use to ask for donations.

The case for support is vital to a fundraising strategy because it allows the fundraising team to define exactly why they are asking for donations (and how much), what their charity will do with them and the impact on their beneficiaries.

Fundraising Audit

The fundraising audit is a comprehensive view of your fundraising program. It looks at past and current performance to inform and shape future performance. It should look at every aspect of the fundraising program not just in terms of revenue and expense but return on investment (ROI) and lifetime value (LTV) too. Each channel needs to be examined for profitability; donor retention across every channel and perhaps difficult decisions taken about channels that need radical work to improve them or that should be cut. It is a deep dive into your fundraising and time and space cannot do it justice here. I’ll return to this another day!

The Fundraising Strategy

This is your plan. This sets out your stall for the next 3-5 years as a fundraising team. It states your goals – the big ticket items of what you will achieve in the strategic period. I always have as my first goal how much will be raised per year by the end of the final year of the plan. We are fundraisers after all so we must be guided by a financial target!

Think too of your strategic pillars. These define the core strategies that you will follow to achieve your goals.

Next, begin the process of defining the resources you will need to deliver the strategy. These should include:

  • Structure and staff
    • Structure always follows strategy as the plan defines the structure you must have to deliver it and the staff to bring the experience and expertise
  • Investment: how much do you need to deliver your fundraising goals? This will include fundraising costs, staff, agency costs and so on
  • Supporting infrastructure such as a CRM/database/analytics
  • Define your reporting tools and how you will analyse and report results

Once you have done that then start putting together the tasks, targets and KPI’s you will be using for your plan. These are an excellent way to monitor and manage the plan month on month, year on year.

The strategy will be your guiding light for 3-5 years so make it as detailed as necessary – it should be a working document that you refer to regularly and by which you measure success.

Financial Forecast

It is great to produce a strategic plan but it must always be supported by numbers and building blocks. If you state in your plan that you will raise 1,000,000 (choose your currency!) than you must clearly define how you will do that and what the building blocks are. Include not just revenue but expense so you can build an investment case to the board.

When your CFO, CEO and board ask you what the investment you are seeking will achieve a fully costed budget and business case for your strategy goes a long way to getting it over the line!

When I write my multi year forecast I always use the first year as the budget for year one of the strategy that just makes the process easier and stops replication.

One final point on this, ensure you develop an achievable forecast. There is nothing worse for team morale than missing target every year because a budget/forecast was too ambitious. Be ambitious but also be realistic and build the budget to the available investment!

Operational Plan

So, the strategy is written. You have set your goals, defined your strategic pillars, made sure you have the resources and set a budget and forecast. Now it’s time set out how this will be carried out and the roles and responsibilities of each team member. This is, if you like their work plan and how each of the fundraising team will manage their portfolio. As a managers tool it is ideal as the basis for your weekly or monthly 1 to 1 with each team member.

This process might look daunting but I can guarantee that if you do this and follow it through you will be in a much stronger position as a fundraising team to meet you organisational goals. Strategic plans work and bring success. Spend some time to develop it and you will be rewarded.

The expression, Prior preparation and planning prevents poor performance has never been more important than now for fundraisers – we face a daunting time but developing a strong, achievable fundraising strategy will give you a far greater chance of success.

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