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Julie Bornhoeft

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Proposal Writing & The Strategic Plan

If you stay in the fund raising field long enough, your sense of humor becomes warped. You find yourself laughing at jokes that only another development professional can understand. I am not talking about how many development staff it takes to replace the light bulb. I am referring to the immense humor we find in issues such as strategic planning, events, and the like.

As a consultant, I get opportunities to work with a variety of organizations. When contacted by an organization to write a proposal, I normally start the business portion of the conversation by asking how the proposed program fits within the larger organization and how it is positioned within the organization’s strategic plan. The question is not my attempt at humor -- although I get nervous laughter more times than I care to admit. It is also not intended to be a trick question -- but the blank stares occur almost as often as the laughter. Those individuals that value honesty will often look at me with one of two answers: "We have a strategic plan but don’t really use it -- it’s just something the board thinks they should do," or "What’s a strategic plan?" I thrive on those times when the response speaks to long-range vision and plans to sustain the program.

I am not necessarily looking for a concise answer that references page numbers of an elaborate document. I am seeking information to determine if the organization has previously thought about the program it seeks to fund. I want to know if the organization has established a foundation for the concept and thought it through before it knew funding may be available. I don’t even necessarily care if the organization has a formal plan. An organization that can verbally articulate to me that it has given conscious thought to its present situation and future needs is often more reassuring than the group that has a plan it refuses to follow. I need to know the organization’s approach. It tells me volumes concerning whether I want to pursue the project and helps me assess just how much work may truly be involved.

Through these experiences, I have realized several trends.

Organizations all too often seek funding for new programs -- any programs. The emphasis is on acquiring money, rather than about structured program expansion. Unfortunately, these organizations often fail to assess all needs the organization may currently face. They fail to assess how a new program may dramatically change other aspects of their operation. They don’t examine that, by creating a new program, they may actually create increased need in the event that program creates a gap in their service continuum.

Another trend I see is short-term thinking. The agency recognizes an immediate need and realizes funding may be available. Very little attention is given to maintaining the program beyond its initial start-up period. I recognize that none of us is psychic. It is not always possible to guarantee future funding. It is always possible to think about a program’s likelihood for being maintained. Agencies must assess if a program can be maintained. They must ask themselves where the funding will be located.

This is the primary trend I see: a strategic plan that does not link a program to increased fund development activity. The fund development portion of the strategic plan is often a regurgitated version of the prior year’s plan with modest increases planned.

Strategic planning, program development, and fundraising are equally important components of an agency’s future. The three must be addressed simultaneously when an agency is seeking funding through proposals. An agency can choose to move forward with a program and not consider its sustainability, but they compromise the program’s future in doing so. Failure to plan for a program’s longevity all too often leads to agency’s eliminating programs when the funding ceases.

The next time you plan for program funding, examine your strategic plan. What changes will you need to make to sustain the program in the next one to three years? Do you need to plan to increase the capacity of your fund development department? Will you want to hire a proposal writer a year before the funding ceases? Should you scale back program expectations to create a more affordable approach? Can you offer the services within an existing program more effectively? Can start-up costs be eliminated in the short term and allow the program to operate more efficiently? Can you afford to offer this program now and risk losing it? The tough questions must be answered. While the agency may look wonderful in the short term for offering new and innovative programs, it can also look unprofessional if forced to close a program because sustaining it did not receive sufficient consideration during the planning process.

If your organization does not participate in regular strategic planning, now would be a good time to start -- before you create another program. Identify your priority areas, discuss how you fund the priorities, and talk about existing and future needs. Brainstorm your findings and put them into a usable document that can guide future conversations.

As nonprofit organizations, we will always face need for our services. Demand is the indicator that you are doing good work and that people need you. At the same time, we must acknowledge the importance of ensuring stability of programs for those in need. New ideas should not result in nervous giggles or blank stares. New ideas should result in honest conversations about organizational impact. When we can have these conversations and see the future of the program, we have truly succeeded.


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