Ready. Acquire. Aim.

Published by Rebecca Davies on

Once, twelve days into a new fiscal year, we threw out the annual plan.

Fundraisers love – and should love – their strategic and annual plans. We need plans. Then sometimes we need new ones. This is a blog post about agile planning, and thinking less linearly about the planning cycle.

Admittedly, the time we threw out the playbook was a dramatic one: Haiti. January 12, 2010. We all know the story: the earthquake and its horrible loss of life. 300,000 acutely injured, 1.5 million homeless. A minute after the earthquake, MSF/Doctors Without Borders launched the largest rapid emergency response in our history.

For our fundraising team, too, our sense of history and language changed. Now, there’s only “before Haiti” “after Haiti” and “when Haiti happened.”

On an average day, MSF Canada, then, as now, received about 100 inbound calls. The Friday after the earthquake, we got 11,000. And so we talked. We spoke with donors non-stop, answering the phones from 8am to sometimes 11 at night in those first weeks.

Our systems were absolutely stressed by this stampede of phone and then mail donations, and yet…they were only a tenth of what was happening online. In the first week alone, 18,000 new donors made online gifts to MSF Canada. That’s almost four times more than during the first week after the 2004 tsunami.

And certainly way more donors than we’d projected to acquire that year through ALL channels. We had no precedent for this kind of acquisition in our fundraising program.

We knew this was an opportunity…especially with new online donors. We also knew it was ours to lose. (It’s a tension each one of us in fundraising knows, isn’t it? You think… WOW what a windfall! And then you remember why.)

And so, two months after the Haiti earthquake, we had almost 50,000 NEW donors. More than half – 34,000 – gave online.

This was the new universe. And the universe told us – and we told executive and the board – we quickly needed a new direction for 2010.

Four things about this emergency made it obvious we’d have to rethink our plan:

1. The massive health needs
A lot of people died, yes, but there were many more left alive and injured. And they needed help. The kind of help MSF is best at. Things like life- and limb-saving surgeries.

We also had first-hand, instant, and continuous information to give donors. We knew exactly how many procedures were being done, how much they cost, how much stock was being used, and how much more was needed.

2. The massive volume of new donors
And they gave online like never before. Of the 50,000 news donors we got when Haiti happened, 34,000 of those came online. The year before, 2009, a year with no major emergency, we got 12,000 new one-time donors from all channels: 18% – who gave online, which wasn’t bad at all, said industry benchmarks.

Compare this again with the first two months of 2010: 68% of new donors gave online. That’s a huge jump: 18 to 68% giving online. Okay, channel choice varies in emergencies versus non-eventful times, but this fact was overwhelming. What could we do with this?

3. The low acquisition cost
We just don’t have natural donor leads: alumni, or grateful patients in the traditional sense, and heavy – and expensive – acquisition is necessary to keep attrition at bay and our donor file growing.

It was particularly the low acquisition cost (mainly through earned media) and the joy of a HUGE test group that we knew we couldn’t proceed with our 2010 annual plan.

We were rudderless, and needed a new playbook. We had a particularly brilliant and ambitious annual plan for 2010, using words like “stretch goal” and “turbocharge” and “maximizing revenue growth”.

BUT…and this is the way it works at MSF – we were still on the hook for the deliverables in our 2010 annual plan, which were a lot about growing the monthly file for long-term capacity building.

What we did next needed to support our strategic and annual planning, and undesignated, MONTHLY giving was central to that. After all, we had commitments in 70 countries to pay for. Haiti was only one.

We didn’t set out in 2010 to execute a multi-channel conversion campaign. But our objective soon became to convert as many of those new online donors as possible into monthly donors. We made up a lot of it as we went along and that turned out to be the best strategy.

This is called agile planning. Agile planning is about not having a gold-plated strategy. Taken from software development methods, agile planning is the deliberate absence of best practices, and building your plan by testing and learning in real time. It’s iterative and incremental: divide the email list in three and test test test subject lines and content; review click-through and open rates hourly; launch a major telemarketing campaign in a day and change the telemarketing script on the fly. Pull print ads within hours of publication because of a brilliant spot of earned media; invite donors to a webinar on short notice because you have something to say NOW. If you lead with content, do not be afraid of lots of donor contact.

Agile planning – sometimes called emergent planning – is about seizing opportunities. As an emergency response organization, we discovered it’s an approach that makes sense for us in fundraising: each channel offers something, and we can take advantage of opportunities as they arise and add pieces to what would create the new annual plan retrospectively.

Again, agile/emergent planning is analogous to MSF’s work: disaster, response. I asked one of our doctors recently, how do you react – either in the field or at your hospital here in downtown Toronto – when you have so many people who need emergency care, all at once? This is what he said:

“It is testing and treating wrapped together. When we have sick patients in a serious emergency we act first and think second. The thinking is of course there, but it evolves as the action occurs. In the emergency, I treat, examine and then take a history.”

And this is what we did as fundraisers those first weeks after the Haiti earthquake: we tested, we treated, and THEN layered on the history.

We’re already discussing the 2013 annual plan, and you can be sure – major emergency or not – in it there will be the continued expectation of innovation through agile planning: critically observing what’s really going on, learning in the moment, and having the flexibility to seize opportunities.

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Paul Nazareth ( twitter @UinvitedU ) · July 19, 2012 at 20:00

Any organization, for-profit or social-profit will only “survive” without a plan. Treading water is about being busy staying in the same place.

To get somewhere you need to know where you want to go – planning is essential but only smart org’s do it. Leaders like your RD need to be talking more about this as peers, fundraising staff can affect no change on their ‘bosses’.

When I worked for a fundraiser who respected planning and results, it changed my work, life, health and I was twice as productive.

Surviving sucks. Thriving rocks.

Thank you / Bravo.

Christina Attard @GPtekkie · July 20, 2012 at 00:04

I LOVE planning. A development shop without one is lost at sea. I also appreciate that your team was flexible to ditch and adjust and re-work the plan as a living document when it was needed most. Most plans live in dusty hard-drives or in desk drawers. Mine is literally the wall-paper in my office and our morning 5minute stand-up meetings take place in front of that wall-paper so we can see where we’re at. (Those who SKYPE me at work are usually treated to a video tour of the plan-wall.)

What happened to you is what I often tell my clients – if you want a flood, you’d better build a darn good ark! Your “ark” was in place, you were ready to react, act, engage and evaluate when the unexpected arrived because the hard work of building the capacity to handle a “flood” was already done. It’s why I think organizations who rush their Development Directors and Officers and Capital Campaigns never really get ahead. It takes time to build the plan and the capacity and then patience to wait for the rainmaking to work.

Thanks for sharing this and revealing some of the (unfortunately hidden) secrets that make shops like MSF successful.

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