The Fundraising Executive


By Eddie Thompson | July 10, 2012 | Donor Communications

The language of classic planning and decision-making can be a bit confusing. What is, after all, the real difference between strategic, tactical, and operational planning? How does institutional doctrine differ from institutional policy? Most importantly, how can these concepts be applied to fundraising and charitable estate planning?

Planning terminology varies between military, business, and non-profit applications — some take it more seriously than others, and specific definitions change as you apply the planning process to specific disciplines. In the charitable estate planning world, non-profit executives frequently use terms like “strategic thinking,” “strategic gifts”, and “strategic planning.” In this context, “strategic” is typically intended to mean the opposite of haphazard approaches to investing or giving. But like any word that gets over used, the precise meaning begins to be obscured. Here is how I apply these military and business planning terms to fundraising and charitable estate planning.

1.  Strategic Planning focuses on the general approach to the end goal. In World War II there was no small debate over the strategic plan to defeat the Third Reich. The final decision was to “approach” Berlin through France rather than through Italy. All other planning was derived from that strategic plan. Strategic planning is always end-goal oriented and consequently serves as a decision filter. Decision makers approve some ideas and reject others based on whether or not they support the strategic plan.

Strategic planning is always end-goal oriented and consequently serves as a decision filter.

Applied to donor relations and charitable giving, experienced donors use strategic planning as a filter to determine how and to whom they give. It also affects how they spend, invest, and organize their estate plan.  If you have ever tried to solicit a gift from a strategic-oriented donor when that gift concept didn’t fit their plan, you know how quickly and easily that donor declined. Their assets and discretionary income made little difference. No matter how passionately and persistently you asked, your appeal never had a chance because it didn’t make it through the filter. Understanding strategic planning decision filters is pretty important for a fundraiser.

Of course, all of this is irrelevant if the donor does not have a clearly defined end goal. Put another way, there can be no real strategic planning without a clearly defined strategic objective. For some, that is hardest part. How many times have you asked a donor or client what they want more than anything else? And for various reasons, the answer is, “I don’t know.” If there is an answer, often it is more of a preference than a passion; a sense of cultural obligation rather than a personal conviction. Great strategic planners make it the first order of business to help their donors/clients identify and clearly define what they really believe and what they really want.

2.  Tactical Planning is typically more negative and crisis oriented because it focuses on problems and obstacles in the way of the strategic objective. It is also reactive, thus the term “tactical response.” Tactic planning is more short-term focus. It deals with removing one obstacle after another on the way to strategic objective.

Applying tactical planning to fundraising and gift planning, an important perception emerges. Charitable gift planning is primarily tactical planning, not strategic planning. It is tactical because it primarily addresses tax and wealth transfer problems. It is tactical because it is simply facilitating one aspect of a donor’s strategic plan.  Donors with clearly defined strategic objectives are focused on things like legacy, making a difference in the world, and successful, productive grandchildren.

Charitable gift planning is primarily tactical planning, not strategic planning.

Non-profit executives naturally think of gift planning in terms of CRUTs, stacking CLATs, life estate trusts, etc. However, those are the simply the tools of our trade — tactics employed to deal with the problems of wealth transfer. The best charitable estate planning executives have a strategic-planning approach, not a tactical planning approach to donor relations. That is to say, they initially focus on a donor’s life-objectives, not the tactical tools of wealth transfer.

Tactical or tool-oriented presentations are concrete, technical, and information-based. Conversely, working with a donor to identify their core beliefs and strategic objectives is far more abstract and creative. A tool-oriented approach is much easier to learn. By comparison, a strategic planning approach requires much more experience, relationship skills, and knowledge of effective giving strategies throughout the non-profit world.

Over time, successful charitable estate planning executive develop two skill sets — one comprises the skills of a family counselor, pastor, and philanthropic advisor; the other perspective is that of an accountant and legal advisor. Less successful charitable estate planners have only develop one or the other.

So what difference does it make if non-profit executives and gift planners understand classical planning terms like strategy, tactics, doctrine, or operations? Most of the time — very little difference. However, it could occasionally make a big difference. For instance: It makes a difference when donors look to us for sophisticated planning and decision-making advice.

It really makes a difference when we assume to be making strategic plans when we are only crafting tactical responses to short-term problems.

Planning terminology is important, but it is more than simply being able to speak planning language. As professional planners assisting people with some of the most important decisions of their life, we need to be very clear how we think about the planning process.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2012 – R. Edward Thompson