Today’s guest post is from T. Clay Buck, Founder & Principal of TCBFundraising. A Master Trainer, Clay also teaches at the University of Nevada. He’s been on all sides of a nonprofit – running the fundraising, analyzing nonprofit databases, and consulting to nonprofits. Here, he shares the basics of creating an effective nonprofit fundraising plan. You can see his tweets about nonprofit fundraising, and about Labrador retrievers, by following him on Twitter @TClayBuck.

Uncharted Waters: A nonprofit fundraising plan that gets results

T Clay Buck

by T. Clay Buck, CFRE

The first thing you see when you enter my house is a very large, framed nautical chart.

The edges are frayed and, in some places, ripped. There are creases that are on the way to becoming tears from being folded and unfolded countless times.

There are hand-written notes at certain places – way-markers for seafarers to be wary or reminders of dangers within the deep. Some of these are clearly in different handwriting.

At the bottom is a stamped message: “1909 Ocean Geographic Institute.” On the back is written the name of a vessel and the captain’s name, dated 1921.

This is a well-used, working nautical chart. It clearly changed hands and mapped many voyages. Who knows what stories it guided sailors through or what it storms it helped them weather?

My family and I have spent many happy hours sailing the same waters this chart describes. It will catch our eye and we reminisce, “Remember that time . . .” Or a trick of the light will call our eye to somewhere we’ve not yet been, “Some day we will . . .”

Maps record where we – and others – have been, showing us the way, telling us what works and what doesn’t, what dangers to avoid and highlights to see. They also carry our future – point out to us what’s possible, where potential lies, and opportunity abounds. From “Here be dragons!,” to “X Marks the Spot!”

Fundraising plans do the same.

Now, while it’s not likely you’ll frame your plan and place it in a prominent position in your home, a strong, detailed plan is your visible commitment to your goals, the mission, and the community you serve as a fundraiser.

It is also your guide and your map. A thoroughly developed plan is based upon history, supports the budget and financial needs, and lays out aspirations for stretch goals.

Based On History (i.e. Data)

A good fundraising plan will incorporate what your organization has done in the past:

  • How much money have you raised in recent years?
  • How many donors? How many gifts per donor?
  • What’s the quality of the data?

Ideally your budget will be based on the same information, particularly on your key metrics – and it’s absolutely critical that fundraising be at the table and part of the budgeting discussion.

And a fundraising plan will provide realistic goals that are both achievable and aspirational. For example, perhaps you want to invest more in digital fundraising and increase email communications, but if most of your donors don’t have an email address on file that changes your plan from one of increasing email communications to one of contact capture and increasing data hygiene.

We also have to think about the fundraising plan differently than we do the strategic plan.

An effective fundraising plan lays out the goals we intend to achieve within a time frame. In this context we are talking about your annual fundraising plan. A strategic plan is a bold, aspirational goal over a longer period – it’s vision in action, where do you want to be.

History, then, tells us what we can do. If your ultimate goal is to double the amount you raise year-over-year, the question in an annual fundraising plan is if your history will allow you to achieve that within the plan’s timeline. If your giving history doesn’t indicate significant increases, but there’s a sudden budget increase, the question then becomes if you can implement tactics within your plan to achieve them.

Supports The Budget

Your fundraising budget is a physical manifestation of your organization’s commitment to the mission. When you’re establishing an annual budget, the fundamental proposition is: “In order to feed hungry people [our mission], it costs $xxxx [our budget] and in order to fulfill that mission, these are the steps we will take [your plan.]

A goal without a plan to support is just a wish.

But it’s far more than just a number. Let’s say, for example, your annual fundraising goal is $250,000. What’s a stronger plan – two $125,000 gifts from major donors or 250 gifts of all different levels and amounts? Neither is inherently right or wrong, but in the answer to that question lies the details of your fundraising plan.

A fundraising plan needs to provide a long-term, sustainable approach to funding your organization’s mission. It also needs to provide the details on the tactics that underpin the over-arching strategy.

Let’s say your goal is to raise significant money from major donors. In looking back at your data (from step 1):

  • Have you ever had a successful major gifts program?
  • Do you have the prospective donors at those levels?
  • What potential pitfalls could come your way as you execute on that goal?

The fundraising plan is going to address all of those opportunities and more in supporting the goals outlined within our organizational budget.

Aspirations for Stretch Goals

Sailors for millennia gazed at the horizon and wondered what was there. Cartographers imagined waterfalls tumbling over the edge of the earth in the abyss of chaos. Some of our earliest seafaring tales, weave stories of mariners lured to their demise. Yet humans never stopped building boats and taking out to sea.

So, too, do fundraising plans point us to what could be.

Go back to that example of major gifts. Perhaps your history does show you’ve never had a successful major gift program – but that doesn’t mean you can’t build one! And it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t lay the groundwork in this year’s plan to start.

Investing in the fundraising plan – and the process to build it – not only lays out the current tactics to achieve this year’s goals, it allows you, the fundraiser, to start laying the groundwork for the bigger goals, the bolder visions, while still accomplishing today’s immediate needs.

Maps encourage boldness…they make anything seem possible.
— Mark Jenkins, Explorer, Author, Adventure Travel Columnist

A good, solid fundraising plan makes a daunting goal seem possible. It lays out the tactics that inform the strategy and inspire boldness – not just for ourselves, but for our donors and the beneficiaries we serve.

If you liked this, you’ll love Clay’s training Uncharted Waters: A nonprofit fundraising plan that gets results in changing times at

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