Tackling the Annual Fund Planning Process

Posted on 05/01/2021

Essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Similarly, the process of developing a plan for any annual giving campaign often ends up being even more valuable than the end product. It’s the process that brings the key stakeholders together and collects their input. It’s the process that gives staff a sense of ownership, which makes them more likely to want the plan to succeed.

Getting started can be the hardest part. It may be tempting to wait until after the books close and the fiscal year is complete, but planning should begin several months months before the end of the fiscal year. You won’t have the final results at that point, but you should have a sense of what has or hasn’t been working.

A good way to kick off the planning process is to bring together all of the annual fund stakeholders for a meeting. This can include the annual fund staff as well as colleagues from other advancement units who do work on behalf of the annual fund (e.g., alumni relations, advancement services, communications, major gifts). You may also want to include campus partners (e.g., student life) or vendors.

If time and resources permit, consider making this initial meeting a retreat or hosting it at an offsite location. This will give the meeting a greater sense of importance, and it will help participants by reducing the distractions that inevitably arise during a typical day in the office. It’s worth dedicating at least a half-day to your initial planning meeting. Depending on the size and complexity of your program, it may even be worth scheduling a full day or more.

Appoint someone to lead the meeting. This person might be the annual fund program director or someone from outside your team or the organization, such as a consultant or a colleague from a peer institution. One of the benefits of a third party facilitator is their objectivity, since they are not immersed in the challenges and politics that you and other staff face every day. Facilitators can also help ensure that everyone has a chance to participate rather than having the meeting dominated by one or a few individuals.

Set an agenda in advance of the meeting to ensure that you make good use of everyone’s time. It doesn’t need to be long or detailed, but it should allow time to review the past year’s activities and performance, discuss goals and expectations, and address any special projects or issues that are especially relevant to the program. Be sure to dedicate some time to talk about new initiatives or recurring challenges, and maintain a “parking lot” list for important topics or ideas that need to be addressed at a later time. Bring data to the meeting to help you reflect back and look forward. For example, a report showing the volume of annual fund activity by month can be useful when identifying pockets of opportunity for the coming year.

Without a doubt, what happens after the initial planning meeting is just as important as what happens during the meeting itself. Your work will likely continue for the next few months as your plan unfolds and you refine your strategy. Although the duration of this work can vary widely depending on your circumstances, consider the following timeline to help guide your team through the remainder of the planning process:

  • Organize and distribute meeting notes to all participants and stakeholders within 1–2 weeks after the initial planning meeting
  • Ask for feedback in writing within 1–2 weeks after the meeting notes are distributed
  • Create and distribute a draft of your plan within 2–3 weeks of receiving feedback
  • Distribute the draft plan and ask for feedback in writing within 2–3 weeks
  • Revise the plan within 2–3 weeks of receiving feedback, including final results and performance data for the prior fiscal year
  • Distribute a final plan within 1–2 months of starting the new fiscal year

Like any process, planning requires patience to get it right. Think of it like creating a sculpture. Your kick-off meeting will produce a block of concepts. Then you’ll need to chip away at that block to remove the parts that aren’t needed and accentuate the parts that are most important – until what’s left is a thoughtful and strategic plan. This won’t happen overnight, but in the end, it will provide your team with something that everyone can appreciate and find beneficial.


This article has been adapted from the book Ideas for Annual Giving by Dan Allenby. Copyright (c) 2016 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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