Annual Planning in an Ever-Changing World

Back in 2019, I had some great conversations with colleagues from various organizations while I helped them brainstorm ideas and strategies for their missions and make plans for the coming year. As 2020 rolled in, most had created their plans. Many of those plans were energizing and exciting. And then came COVID-19. Those amazing plans we brainstormed, developed, and shared didn’t pan out for a lot of us, including me.

COVID-19 changed our lives, our organizations, and our supporters. So we made new plans—some of which we actually managed to refine, while others just sort of happened—as we all were trying to survive in what became our new normal.

And in this new normal, you all did amazing things:

  • Arts & cultural organizations and educational institutions reached out to patrons and their community through social media and other technologies.
  • Social service organizations provided new or expanded services as needs began to increase.
  • Corporations and organizations opened their event centers and supplied volunteers, donations, and other gifts in kind.
  • Healthcare organizations provided much needed care and health services.
  • Foundations, corporations, and countless individuals provided additional funding and support.
  • Nonprofit organizations provided everything from coloring books, to lifesaving equipment, to furry new friends that provided companionship.

So many other amazing things have been happening—in such a short time and with minimal planning—that many of us have nearly forgotten what our old “normal” world was like a year ago.

Below are insights from conversations I’ve had with so many people and organizations in the past months as we assessed our current situation and future efforts. I thought you might find this feedback encouraging as you’re setting your plans for 2021.

“So, why make plans if we know things are going to keep changing?”

Supporters look to our annual plans and goals as inspiration to join our efforts, and as motivation to keep supporting us. Because last year’s plans changed a lot, many organizations may be wary of sharing 2021 plans with supporters. But remember, it wasn’t just our organizations that had to change plans—our supporters also experienced change in 2020. We all need to keep moving forward together.

Download the FREE Blackbaud University Planning & Goals Workbook and Calendar

“So how do we plan for the year when we don’t know what shoe is going to drop next?”

First, we need to be honest that our plans are just that—plans. Anyone who has children or has ever taken a trip knows that plans rarely happen as planned.

“So, how do we share this fragility of our plans and still make our organization sound like a strong partner to invest in?”

Honesty is the best policy—but there are right/wrong and good/bad ways to communicate that honesty.

“So, what are the wrong ways of communicating our situation to our supporters?”

  • Don’t say you have no plans just because you don’t know the future
  • Don’t say you’re expecting your plans will fail or change
  • Don’t keep your plans a secret
  • Don’t remind your supporters that your plans didn’t hold up last year
  • Don’t act like last year was normal

You may be looking at the above list of don’ts and thinking, but that’s how we feel. I know many people and organizations do. None of us knows the future or what will happen in 2021, but that doesn’t mean we should stop communicating our plans with our supporters. Actually, we need to communicate even more this year.

“Then, what do we do?”

  • Share your plans with your supporters
  • Explain that your plans will flex as needed as the year progresses—and that’s normal
  • Share a few examples of lessons learned last year, which you can use to your advantage this year:
    • Were you able to increase your social media communication?
    • Were you able to cut some overhead costs?
    • Were you able to serve alongside other social good organizations?
  • Reassure your supporters that you, your organization, and your board members are resilient (you can flex when needed), but you are all steadfastly committed to continue supporting and fulfilling your organization’s mission and vision.

Remember: Your mission and vision are what your supporters sign onto when they invest in your organization through donations and other types of support

  • Thank your supporters for coming alongside you and continuing to support your mission and vision.

“Great, so we know what to do once we have a plan! But what if we don’t have plans yet?”  

Start planning! Get out a sheet of paper or pull up a blank document and start brainstorming. Or use the Blackbaud University 2021 Planning & Goals workbook to help you start planning.

  • What are some things you would like to do within your organization this year?
  • What are some things you must do?
  • Think about your plans for last year. What do you want to keep doing this year? How would you change things?
  • Look at your mission and vision statements. Are you accomplishing your mission? What do you need to do to keep moving in the right direction?
  • Look at each of your programs, talk to your staff, and talk to your supporters. What would they love to see happen in 2021?

After you’ve assessed your effort, review your feedback and start seeing how things relate to each other. What similar trends are you seeing? These are the seeds that will help you determine your plans. Yes, you may need to change or flex these plans as 2021 progresses, but remember that you, your organization, and your staff need goals to strive toward and ideas (or plans) for how you are going to get there.

Remember: As your plans are finalized (and yes, even as they change):

  • Make sure your plans aren’t creating mission creep into areas that don’t align (your mission is now and always should be your guide)
  • Communicate with your staff and supporters so everyone is on the same page

We are all in this together so remember to bring everyone along for the ups and inevitable downs, for the emotional and financial support, and the amazing journey and accomplishments your organization will experience in 2021.