What is an Operations Plan and Why Should We Write One?

  • Published October 11, 2021
  • / By Sarah Cave

A Development Office Operations Plan is a written document of overarching goals combined with the nuts and bolts of running a fiscal year. Everyone in the office has a role in the success of the operation, but not everyone understands how they fit into the bigger picture. An operations plan helps clarify roles and responsibilities while informing the entire team, as well as your Board of Trustees, volunteers, VP, Head of School or President.

An operations plan is also incredibly helpful in a worst case scenario: someone in the office moves on, or becomes ill. Having a written plan affords the Development team an opportunity to keep the balls in the air or gives a new hire a road map to follow.

2020 was a year that demonstrated the value of both having a plan and being nimble around tactics. Those offices who took time to rethink goals and strategies saw their efforts rewarded.

What Makes Good Plan?

There are three components to creating a vibrant operations plan:

  1. Goals & Objectives (financial goals as well as strategic ones)
  2. Tactics (methods/approaches to achieve these goals)
  3. Calendar (month to month specificity)

I recommend trying one new idea in each division: for example, a highly segmented mailing in the Annual Fund; stewardship calls from the Board of Trustees; a young alumni dinner or event. Nothing too enormous, but something to shake things up and keep you out of the “we always did it this way” rut. If it doesn’t work, you aren’t losing a great deal of time and effort, but you may discover something that appeals to your constituency and gets results!

What time of year should we tackle this project?

You want to have the plan completed, compiled and approved so that you can hit the ground running on July 1. If this is the first time you’re creating a plan, begin in January – that gives you time to really think through strategies and questions. If you’re updating/refreshing, then April/May is a great time to look at the details and see what needs to be changed.

 Once the fiscal year closes (in early July) take a day to gather the staff together and go through each segment of the plan. This helps everyone on the team see how the year is going to unfold. It can also highlight those crazy stretches of time where it’s “all hands on deck” to make events like reunion weekend or the first annual fund mailing a success.

The Director of Development should maintain the plan in an accessible location. With today’s technology, there’s no need to print it and put it in a notebook, but you certainly can. Otherwise, pop it into Dropbox, or Google drive – whatever community server you utilize. The calendar should be merged and referenced month to month in staff meetings.

What happens when things change?

Change is inevitable. A plan is not a rule book that must be followed or else. It should serve as a guide and a reminder. If deadlines or events shift, keep the goal but alter the strategy. The key element is to check in on the plan every 3-4 months.

This seems like a lot of work.

A good plan does take time and effort. However, each member of the team writes his or her own piece of the plan – it’s not the job of the DoD to create it in a vacuum. The Annual Fund Director writes their segment; as does the Major Gift Officer, Database Manager, Parent Liaison, etc. The DoD should work with individuals in the office to set or discuss goals and provide guidance on new ideas. 

Once you have completed the effort the first time, updating the plan from year to year is a simpler process. Every piece of the operations plan should be reconsidered each year. Perhaps you had staff turnover; or you’re looking at a big anniversary year ahead; a capital campaign may be on the horizon or your organization has new branding. The point is, keep it up. This once a year effort will reap rewards throughout your entire operation.