Building a Comprehensive Development Plan

development plan Feb 23, 2021

Every development plan is as unique as the organization that is creating it. What works for some organizations, might not necessarily work for yours. So be careful when asking colleagues to share their plans. You can’t just cut and paste to create your plan. There is no quick fix. First, you need to take into consideration where your organization is in its life cycle and where your development office is in its life cycle.

For example, if your organization or institution is new, your programs might need a lot of grant funding to get started and you won’t have happy alumni, grateful patients, or other groups of individuals who are already supporting you. You might need to rely more on donor acquisition, which is costly and takes time to “pay off.” Or, if you’ve been around for a while but development is new, you’ll probably need to spend more time building infrastructure. So, don’t get worried if your development plan doesn’t look like the ones developed by the colleagues you asked to share theirs.

What do I mean by life cycles? Organizations, just like humans go through stages of development—infancy, youth, midlife, and maturity. What does this mean in an organization? Infancy means your organization is very young, most likely the ink on your 501 (c)(3) is not dry yet and you have a small or nonexistent staff. In the youth cycle, your organization is suffering growing pains, hiring new staff, outgrowing facilities, etc. Midlife may have its share of crises—ethical dilemmas, founder’s syndrome, and many more. Even in maturity, an organization’s life cycle is challenging. You’ll hear things such as, “we’ve always done it this way,” and “we tried that once and it didn’t work.”  And you also must look at where your development office is on its life cycle. Your organization can be two-hundred years old but new to fundraising, so the development office life cycle might be at the infancy or youth stage.


Development Life Cycle What It Means What Your Development Plan Might Look Like
Infancy New to fundraising, have been dependent on few sources of fundraising, i.e. government grants, fees for service Your development plan will focus of things like creating awareness and building infrastructure
Youth Urgent need to find more funding to keep up with growing technology and expansion of development department Your plan will be focused on new revenue streams and increasing revenue from existing fundraising sources—you may find a focus on special events and grants
Midlife You are in the process of trying to develop relationships with existing donors and get them to increase giving Your plan will probably focus more on major gifts, planned gifts, and donor cultivation and stewardship
Maturity Your development program is probably humming along smoothly but you’re looking for ways to work more effectively and more efficiently Your plan pays close attention to metrics ad measurements and will focus on donor retention

As you can see, your plan will have a different focus as your development plan matures just as our life focus changes as we mature. No matter where your program is in its life cycle, these things are always important, so your plan might include an annual review just to be sure things are up-to-date in each area.

As you create your plan remember the traditional donor pyramid and that the goal of development efforts is to help donors move up the pyramid to the top—in other words, to build strong donor relationships.


Infrastructure includes things like having a strong case for support, policies and procedures, technology, and staffing. Your plan should include developing these items when you’re in your infancy, refining them as you enter youth and midlife, and reviewing and updating them once your program is mature.  So, for example, a development program in its infancy will need to create its case for support, purchase a good donor management software system, develop gift acceptance and recognition policies, and create the day-to-day procedures for managing gifts. Note that these items may cost money but do not have immediate offsetting income.  Your CEO, CFO, and board need to understand the value of investing in development and that investment will be one of time and of money.

As your program matures, some of these areas might still require an investment of time and money. You’ll want to review policies and procedures, update your case for support annually or whenever you have a new initiative planned, and make sure your data management system is still doing what you need it to do.

Building a development committee and board development are often critical components of a development plan.  And part of your plan might include hiring more staff, involving the board and volunteers in development more, and getting training and education for board, staff, and volunteers.

Donor Identification

If your organization is in its infancy new donor identification will take a priority role. You might focus a lot of energy on acquisition mailings, gathering email information, social media, and conducting events to create awareness of your organization.  As your program matures, don’t lost sight of these methodologies. It will always be important to acquire new donors. You might plan activities for your board and volunteers to get involved in developing and refining lists of potential donors. You might use tools such as Donor Search or Wealth Engine to learn more about your donors and potential donors.

Donor Cultivation

Donor cultivation is important in the early stages of a development program.  Once you’ve identified prospective donors, you need to build relationships with them.  You might ask board members and development committee members to host cultivation events or to open doors to potential donors they’ve identified. Regular cultivation events and activities should be a part of your plan at every stage of your organization’s life cycle.

And we haven’t even gotten to solicitation yet!

To learn more about development plans and how to create yours, take my course, Create a Development Plan That Works. Sign up here

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