Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vision vs. Strategic Planning

If you are, or work for, a visionary leader, do you need a strategic plan to secure philanthropic support? After all, if you have someone who can see the future, why should the rest of the organization slog through a long, involved planning process? Why isn’t it enough for the visionary to climb high on the mast, gaze deep into the horizon, point to the faintest shadow of what is surely the promise land, then say confidently, “There is where we must go.”

Indeed, vision goes a long way toward inspiring donations. It excites the imagination, fires up our frontal lobes, and gives hope. It might be enough, in and of itself, to trigger a large number of rather small gifts.

But vision alone isn’t enough to sustain small-to-modest contributions or to inspire larger levels of support because the longer or deeper you ask donors to dig into their income or savings, the more they will want to know:

Exactly what do you need money for?

Where can I make the biggest difference?

What will result from my giving? What goals will be reached? What tangible improvements will be seen? Who will benefit and what will it mean to their future?

Donors not only want to give to a worthy cause, they want to see the face of those served by that cause. They want to make a lasting difference in the lives of those they are asked to help. So vision needs to be supported by specific goals to deliver specific benefits to specific constituents. That’s what you call a sound plan – and an effective case for support.

Notice I didn’t say you need a long planning process. The time taken will render it irrelevant. Internal and external conditions will have changed so much that internal aspirations will no longer match the external moment. Other institutions with lesser strengths may have caught the wave of opportunity before you simply by being lighter on their feet. In addition, if the planning process affords everyone a voice and a vote, you will end up with a planning tome that looks like a college course catalog. That "something for everyone approach is the antithesis of what you need, a focused, compelling, priority-driven case for support.

So, the perfect combination for an organization that seeks to inspire larger amounts of philanthropy would be:

A compelling, well-articulated vision
A flexible plan with a small number of bold but attainable goals
A list of gifts needed at various amounts (almost like registering for a wedding)

The challenge with the last item, unlike a wedding registry, is to explain who will benefit from gifts at every level. For some organizations, that may range from $100 million or more down to a $1,000 or less. In many ways, making the case for the small-to-modest gift is more difficult than for the mega-gift. I have heard many prospective donors question whether a gift of $1,000 or even $100,000 will have a significant impact. If we are to secure their support, we need to show how even modest donations to designated funds can help our organizations achieve significant milestones. And, when those gifts are received, we must show those donors where the money landed and who benefited.

Indeed, the attention we pay to the modest investors and case we make for their gifts is proof we operate not only from a broad vision but a specific plan with concrete goals and focused objectives. It is proof we have thought through what we want to achieve and who we want to help, that we have a place and a use for every gift we might receive, now and in the years ahead.

And the need that every organization has for many small-to-modest, loyal investors should tell their leaders that vision is extremely important but never enough to get the job done or sustain philanthropic support.

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