What is an Operations Plan and Why Should We Write One?

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A Development Office Operations Plan is a written document of overarching goals combined with the nuts and bolts of running a fiscal year. In a perfect world, it’s a living document that starts with the institution’s Strategic Plan. Devising broad, multi-year goals for the office is the first step in the process, and the entire team should take the time to discuss what those goals should be, and whether they align with the strategic plan/mission of the institution.

Everyone in the Development office has a role in the success of the fundraising operation, but not everyone understands how they fit into the bigger picture. An operations plan helps to clarify roles and responsibilities while informing the entire team, as well as your Board of Trustees, volunteers, VP, Head of School or President. For staff, it helps your leader “get out of your way” once the plan has been written, because they understand your goals and strategies for the year ahead.

Having a plan is also incredibly helpful in a worst case scenario: someone in the office moves on, or becomes ill. Having a written blueprint for the year affords the Development team an opportunity to keep balls in the air, or gives a new hire a road map to follow.

 

What Makes a Good Plan?

There are four components to creating a vibrant operations plan:

  1. Goals & Objectives (financial goals as well as strategic ones)
  2. Key Performance Indicators (to provide/demonstrate accountability)
  3. Tactics (methods/approaches to achieve your goals)
  4. Calendar (month to month specificity)

I recommend trying one new idea in each division: for example, a highly segmented mailing in the Annual Fund; a Thank-a-Thon using student callers; a young alumni dinner or networking event. Nothing too enormous, but something to shake things up and keep you out of the “we always did it this way” rut. If it doesn’t work, you aren’t losing a great deal of time and effort, but you may discover something that appeals to your constituency and gets results!

 

What time of year should we tackle this project?

It varies. Some individuals like to begin as early as March. But it makes sense to me to catch your breath just after the students leave campus and start to write the individual sections of the plan in May/early June. In other words, if you haven’t written one yet, the time is to begin is right now!

A “deadline” of June 15 affords the Director of Development the opportunity to review each section of the plan with the responsible individual, and offer advice or tweaks as necessary to complete the plan by June 30. Once the fiscal year closes (at some point in early July) take a day to get the staff together around a table and go through each section of the plan. This helps everyone on the team see how the year is going to unfold. It can also highlight those crazy stretches of time where it’s “all hands on deck” in order to make events like reunion weekend, a gala or the first annual fund mailing a success.

The Director of Development should maintain the plan in an accessible location. With today’s technology, there’s no need to print it and put it in a notebook, but you certainly can. Otherwise, pop it into Dropbox or Google drive – whatever community server you utilize. The calendar should be merged and referenced month to month in staff meetings.

 

What happens when things change?

Change is inevitable. A plan is not a rule book that must be followed or else. It should serve as a guide and a reminder. If deadlines or events shift, keep the goal but alter the strategy.

In December, have another staff meeting to review the plan and adjust as needed. Do you need to add new strategies to achieve the yearly numbers? Did you have a great fall that allows for extra stewardship of your donors? What communications may need tweaking?

 

Volunteers are always wanting us to work on new ideas.

This is common in independent schools, where the Development office is often heavily reliant on parent volunteers. An operations plan allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. Following the plan lets you see three steps ahead. And when volunteers ask about implementing their ideas, you can decide: is it worth doing? Or can you tell them (gently) “We created the budget for this year based on our office plan. That’s a great idea – let’s discuss how we can accomplish it next year!”

 

This seems like a lot of work.

A good plan does take time and effort. However, each person writes his or her own piece of the plan – it’s not the job of the Development Director to create it in a vacuum. The Annual Fund Director writes their segment; as does the Major Gift Officer, Database Manager, Parent Liaison, etc., and you should be able to complete a section in eight hours (or a single day). The DoD should work with individuals in the office to set or discuss program goals, compile all of the pieces into a comprehensive document and merge all of the calendars into a single place.

Once you have completed the effort the first time, updating the operations plan from year to year is a simpler process. But the yearly update is crucial for Development success: remember the new ideas you tried? If they worked, incorporate them into the next year’s plan and propose something else you’ve never done. If they tanked, throw ‘em out and try something different. Every piece of the operations plan should be reconsidered each year. Perhaps you had staff turnover; or you’re looking at a big anniversary year ahead; a capital campaign may be on the horizon or the institution has new branding. The point is, keep it up. This once a year effort will reap rewards throughout your entire fundraising operation for the foreseeable future.

 

All right, you’ve convinced me. But how do we get started? Do you have something I can look at?

Happy to share some samples. And remember, Marts & Lundy has consultants who LOVE working on operations plans. Let us know if we can help you.

Topics for discussion

Sample Operations Plan