Ensuring Donors Have a Voice in Strategic Planning

Sutton Mora Hayes

If you are ever looking for a way to produce groans and hisses from your board of directors, tell them that it’s time to update your strategic plan. There are only a few special souls in this world who stand at the front end of a strategic plan and are excited about spending months dissecting their foundation’s business model to create a plan that, usually, affirms that model and makes adjustments that, hopefully, they were anticipating anyway.

Still, we all know strategic plans are necessary. For community foundations, we all know that it’s wise to check in on our work and set new goals that enable us to stay valuable and productive for our community. We also know that we cannot truly make strategic decisions about the future of our organizations without voices from the community itself.  We need input from the nonprofits that receive our grants, the clients whom those nonprofits serve, the community partners who know about our work, and the community residents who know nothing about our work.

All of these groups are extremely important to the strategic planning process. But there is only one group that helps us keep the lights on so that we can serve the community in the first place: our donors.

When the Board of Governors and staff of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis began discussing an update to our strategic plan a little less than two years ago, we knew that we had to start with the voices of the more than 900 donors who trust us with their charitable giving every day. We had tons of anecdotal evidence that our donors were happy with our services, and that they trusted us as a partner. But we had not actually asked them to assess our work in many years. So, we reached out to the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to help us figure out the best way to do that.

We spent a few months working with CEP to tweak questions in the Donor Perception Report (DPR) survey and make sure we were going to get what we wanted out of collecting feedback from our donors. We told CEP that we were not only anticipating this being our baseline for regular donor perception surveys moving forward, but it was also going to be the underpinning of our next strategic plan. As we worked with our strategic plan consultants, we wanted this survey to be the loudest voice for our donors to have in the process.

We sent the DPR survey out to our donors in May 2017, receiving the results and presenting them to our Board in September. The results were positive and affirming of our current work. However, we also learned that some segments of our donors, especially the donors who had opened funds in the last 10-15 years, wanted more from us than a transactional relationship. They already trusted us, they already believed in us, but still they thought we could mean more to our community.

Internally, we had discussed taking a larger community leadership role than we had traditionally taken before, but the results of the DPR survey showed us that if we took that leap (or maybe just a hop, rather), our donors would likely leap with us. Our donors were not saying that they wanted us to do business differently — they were telling us that they believed we could take more on, and that doing so would be even more beneficial to our community.

As we began to work with our strategic planning consultants to plan interviews with our key constituents, the questions we asked nearly 100 people in those interviews were influenced by what we learned from the DPR. The retreat that we had with our board included the voice of our donors, even though none were present, because the DPR was a part of every discussion. We are currently in the final stages of completing our strategic plan, and we believe that the feedback from our donors is woven into every part of it.

It was important to us that at every stage of this process, our donors knew how important their feedback was to us. As such, we not only posted the results of the report as given to us by CEP on our website, but we also created our own summarizing document that we mailed to every donor and posted online with the other documents.

In that summary, we told our donors that what they told us would be a part of our strategic planning process. We told them that when we release our final strategic plan later this fiscal year, we believe they will feel included because of the thoughtful responses they candidly shared with us through the DPR.

Sutton Mora Hayes is Executive Vice President & COO of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

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