Strategic Planning Pays Big Dividends

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.



If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

Jim Rohn


It has long been known that people who create plans, and commit them to writing achieve more than those who do not.  Further, those who write their strategic plans down, and then build tactical plans with which to implement the strategy are much more likely to be effective.  With this map, a person can find their way towards the objectives.

If this is true on the individual level, then how much more true will it be in a complex organization with many people and many moving parts?  Clearly any corporation, whether it is an eleemosynary or charitable corporation (which seeks to maximize public good and wellbeing), or a corporation designed to maximize profits, it is well served if it has an effective planning process.

Like small entrepreneurial businesses, many nonprofits grow naturally through the ideas and the energy of the founder.  As they grow bigger and bigger without setting the right structure, processes and planning into place—all the ideas and capital are inside the head of the founder.  This leaves the growing staff in the dark, and leaves the board members confused as to what to do to lead the organization.

This makes the organization difficult to manage and the people within it become inefficient and in the worst cases ineffective in serving their constituents and meeting their mission.

Have you ever been in an old hospital that has seen addition after addition through the years?  It has buildings on split levels, hallways that are not efficient for patient care, different elevators to get to different floors because “this elevator doesn’t go to that floor.”  And they have legacy HVAC systems that are from several different decades and which do not function well together.  Since it was not mapped out and clearly conceived in the beginning, it is a patchwork of legacy buildings cobbled together as best as possible.

This is very similar to organizations trying to marry several legacy computer programs together, and to come up with a functional solution for the whole organization (think mergers/acquisitions).  Often, the various pieces must be scrapped and the entire database placed onto a new platform which serves all parties better.

How can we improve upon this process?  With clear, coherent strategic planning.   Boards are supposed to create policies, which the professional staff are then empowered to execute.  When the board of an organization sits with senior staff, they can develop a clear set of strategies to drive the organization forward.  These strategies can then be used by the senior management team to tie each strategic initiative to tactical plans. These tactical plans can then be interpreted to develop work plans for each staff member, and at this point there is clarity and everyone knows what to accomplish to achieve the strategic ends.

It is usually helpful to retain a professional strategic planning expert to facilitate the information gathering, the group discussions and to condense the discussions into a final product around which board members and professional staff can rally.   At Custom Development Solutions (CDS), we offer this comprehensive service and have several professionals devoted to this very work.

One thing that we like to encourage our nonprofit clients to do is to dream big.  Not to fantasize, but to dream big.  What does that mean?

It means that you sit down with a piece of paper and write down all the things you would like to accomplish if money were not an issue.  At this time of year you might say to your board “What would you do if Santa Claus came down that chimney over there and said what would you like from me, without regard to cost?”  List out all the things you might need, then all that you might like, and then even all those that would be wonderful.  Now you have your ‘dream list.’

Next, begin to evaluate the cost of each item in this ‘dream list.’  Estimate the cost of every capital improvement, endowment fund, programmatic improvement, training program and whatever else you envisioned.  Now, you see how much it would cost to achieve your dream.  At this point, you need to begin to prioritize.

Put things into three categories:

  1. Those which are absolutely essential to your mission.
  2. Those which would be great improvements, and finally
  3. Those which are not so essential but which would be wonderful?


This gives you three categories, each in priority order and each with a corresponding cost.  The next step is to begin to consider the costs of chunking this list.  With your past record of fundraising, is it reasonable to consider doing them all at once.   (In almost all organizations the answer here is “No” if you have done the earlier exercises properly.)  How much did you raise in your last capital campaign?

It is at this point that you may want to begin to consider a comprehensive capital campaign to fund the first group of priorities—or phase one.  A professional fundraising consulting firm like Custom Development Solutions, Inc. can help you evaluate your potential with a capital campaign feasibility and planning study.  This will help you determine whether you may be capable enough to raise the money for all three phases, or for phase one and/or phase two.   Armed with that information, you are prepared to plan and conduct a capital campaign to help you achieve your strategic goals in an organized and effective manner.

Most nonprofit organizations can raise more than they may realize.  In fact, when we at CDS have asked our clients why they were not considering a higher goal (such as a client asking for help to raise $4 million for a building that costs $8 million), they often say, “Well, we didn’t think we could.”  We have made numerous clients happy when we showed them what they ‘could’ do.  We can help you too, with a professionally directed strategic planning process.  If the strategic plan creates a need for more funding, we can also conduct a campaign feasibility study to help you determine how much money is within your reach.

In the case of nonprofit organizations, they are often so focused on survival in a competitive giving environment, that they have never really had the opportunity to dream a little, and to consider their vision for the future, because they don’t think they can afford it.  Very similar to corporate CEOs managing to shareholders expectations and to increase short-term valuations.  To operate effectively, it is important for all people, and all organizations to have a vision, and some exciting goals.  As it says in the scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish, but he who keeps the law is happy” (Proverbs 29:18).

In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras refer to Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).   These goals are looking longer term and suggest building a legacy through the company by making decisions now that will build value through the years—rather than trying to make the number this quarter to take the stock price higher.  The question becomes, what will increase the long-term value of this company, or organization.

Nonprofit board and professional staff leaders must insist that they cast a vision that is exciting and challenging, lest they lie in mediocrity.  Do you have some ambitious goals personally?  Have you insisted that the boards upon which you sit consider this and build a strategy?  If not, it is never too late to begin.  We can help.  Call us at CDS.


David G. Phillips is President/CEO of Custom Development Solutions (CDS).  David has personally run campaigns which have raised over $750 million for nonprofits all over the world.  He has built a team of professionals at CDS that have raised over $2.5 billion the world over.  He has written, taught and lectured extensively on major gifts fundraising and capital campaigns.  David and his family live in Charleston, SC.  You may contact him at: or 800-761-3833.  Learn more at:

Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to