The planning dilemma

Many moons ago, I was asked by my then Finance Director if I could get in touch with one of our major donors to see if he would send his pledge now, as we were reforecasting, and we were below budget. As a young and impressionable fundraiser, I nearly did. And then I realized the fact that we were under budget was not hisproblem, and that asking a major donor to send in a cheque (shows how long ago this was!) was really not in anyone’s best interest. Thankfully, I persuaded the powers-that-be of that fact too.

Through conversations with various clients, colleagues and contacts, it seems that everyone is reforecasting at the moment. This is obviously very sensible under the circumstances…. until you realize some charities appear to be on their third Covid-19 reforecast already (or so it would seem). Knowing the state of play is essential to planning for the future and, as we head into the season for 2021 planning, we do of course need to scenario plan and consider options. But as we know, we are in unprecedented times and knowing what is in store for charities over the next year is nigh on impossible. Reforecasting time and time again in quick succession, without really understanding what’s going on, is a highway to nowhere and simply means everyone is planning against an unrealistic scenario.

What we really need to be doing is gathering intelligence. Those people that know me would not say I am a data geek, and I am hardly an Excel guru, but I certainly do appreciate the value and importance of basing decisions – especially big ones like the size and shape of your fundraising function and how much money you are going to raise - on knowledge and insight. Sadly, it would appear not everyone shares the same view. I have had many people tell me over the last few months about teams being reduced in size and functions being cut as a way to cut costs. What doesn’t seem to have been considered when finance is the key driver are the longer-term implications of removing those team members that provide the intelligence you need to plan effectively.

With teams gone, who is caring for donors or analyzing whether new supporters inspired to give are the same type as those on your database before the pandemic? Who is keeping an eye on what companies are doing and how major donors are pivoting their giving? Who is approaching donors and asking them to give or to work with you? Only by working harder now to understand what is actually happening to the way people give, who they are supporting and why, and whether that is a short-term shift or a long-term change, can we hope to scenario plan effectively and build budgets that are realistic and achievable.

One of the very few positives of the current situation is the fact we have all adapted to doing things differently. In my view, one thing that has long needed to be tackled in a different way is planning and budgeting and perhaps now is the time to embrace that change. Rather than teams developing their own plans and budgets and sharing late in the process, now is the time to work together, looking at the data and using intelligence gathered to build a budget and a plan from the bottom up. Now is also the time to work more closely with Finance Directors and Board members to bring them along on the journey. Help them see the real situation and the implications. Push harder for innovation funds that will enable teams to try new ideas, speak up for long-term value rather than short term returns, and help build a place for non-financial value in any future scenarios.

Clearly, 2021 is going to look very different for charities as it is for every sector. We cannot do things like we have before and that means change. For years, I have seen a disconnect between figures in plans and the reality of fundraising in the real world. The sad fact that income has dropped has really brought home the value of fundraising. Now is the time to leverage that new found value (and dare I say respect) to develop fundraising plans that are bold but based on sound data and insight, and where the ‘workings out’ are understood by all from frontline fundraisers to Trustees.

And going back the start of my story, the donor I was asked to ‘gee up’ did fulfil their generous pledge. But sadly, for the Finance Director, it was in the next financial year. Oh well…..

Simon Dickson is Senior Consultant with THINK Consulting Solutions. 
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