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Donor Participation Project

How to Launch a Successful Development Shop: A Case Study Setting Realistic Expectations and Long-Term Goals

Heather Thompson has built fundraising programs from the ground up at multiple nonprofits. As the Chief Development Officer at Norwest Community Action Partnership, she shared her lessons learned for launching a successful development shop.

The key, Thompson says, is setting realistic expectations.

When she started at Norwest CAP, she created an ambitious five-year plan. Her CEO wisely advised her to scale it back to a one-year plan. Fundraising takes time to build, and grand plans can set you up for failure and disappointment. Focus on laying groundwork and incremental growth.

In that critical first year, Thompson focused on internal goals within her control, not just an arbitrary fundraising target. Her goals included retaining current donors, adding new donors, producing grant proposals, and building infrastructure like a CRM to track donors. Reporting on progress towards these goals built credibility and trust in her leadership.

Fundraisers often want to do everything, but you have to start somewhere. Thompson began with institutional fundraising since Norwest CAP had strong program outcomes and metrics to leverage. Small wins from initial grants gave her funding to build on. Each year, Thompson evaluates what’s working to build on successes and make changes where needed. An event in its second year grew after she dropped ticket prices in response to feedback.

Thompson also advocates for resources to support long-term success like a CRM, website, and communication. While the return on investment isn’t immediately clear, these tools build trust and awareness to enable future fundraising. Her tip: find board allies who understand fundraising to help make your case.

Overall, launching a successful development shop starts with a solid foundation, not flashy short-term gains. Set incremental goals, evaluate and adjust based on outcomes, and invest in infrastructure to enable sustainable long-term growth. With realistic expectations and by building strong relationships, Thompson created a flourishing development program to further Norwest CAP’s impact.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

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