Learn more about nonprofit development with this guide.

Nonprofit Development: The Complete Guide [With Resources]

Train your team in effective nonprofit development with Nonprofit Courses.A big part of running a nonprofit is ensuring your organization (including its team members, logistical concerns, and mission-focused operations) are fully funded. And how do you do that? Nonprofit development.

At Nonprofit.Courses, we specialize in providing nonprofits with low-cost, on-demand training resources to bring their teams to the next level. Our online courses cover a variety of topics—including nonprofit development. That’s why we’ve put together this handy resource to guide you in the right direction toward effective team-wide training. Specifically, we’ll cover the following: 

Ready to learn more about nonprofit development and how to optimize your team for success? Let’s jump in.

What is Nonprofit Development?

Development is one of those multi-purpose words that require a good deal of context to use appropriately.

For example, when I worked at a religious organization with programs focusing on what many of us would call Christian missionary work, “development” might be shorthand for “economic development.” When I raised money for a different university, I would get promotional mail for construction equipment. Clearly, someone had my job title, Director of Development, confused with a role in the facilities department. At another time of my life, I consulted for a business where they had a Program Development Office.

So yes, context matters—a lot.

In the nonprofit world, especially among nonprofits who actively seek charitable gifts, “development” is often shorthand for fundraising.

But why? Because “development” refers to the act of building relationships that lead to charitable gifts. It’s really referring to “relationship development.”

However, some nonprofits, especially larger institutions like universities and hospitals, will use the word “advancement” instead of development, to reflect the concept of advancing the mission of the organization.

Some may further argue that an Advancement Office has a wider scope than a Development Office. Development offices tend just to focus on raising money, where advancement offices may encompass alumni relations, marketing, and, for universities and private schools, recruiting. But in common usage, the “advancement” label quickly boils down to a shorthand for raising money, just like “development” does.

What is the difference between development and fundraising?

However, it’s also necessary to point out the differences between development and fundraising, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Ideally, development is more than fundraising.

Fundraising speaks to the act of asking for money. To an educated purist, fundraising is short-term—get the gift and go to the next prospect.

For example, think of a person on the street soliciting funds for a charity. That’s fundraising. The ask cycle is quick. They move from identifying you as a prospect to engaging you in a dialogue to cultivating your interest in a matter of seconds. Then they ask. Once done, whether you give or not, they leave and the relationship is broken.

Development, on the other hand, is seen as a more long-term process, even if you never meet the person. If you’re on a direct mail list, you might ask “why do they keep on sending me mail when I haven’t given to their cause?” It’s because they’re working to develop a relationship with you—and that starts with familiarizing their brand, even if it’s just your seeing their envelope in the mail.

While that may not be the most effective strategy, the idea is that whether you are raising money through direct mail or a person-to-person solicitation, neither is effective with a cold ask. Instead, you need to create a commonality of interest—in other words, develop a relationship—for the donor to be responsive to your request.

The power of development is that a well-established relationship pays tremendous dividends over time. As your relationship with the donor grows and they become more attuned to your mission, they will make more, and larger, gifts to your nonprofit. Fundraising doesn’t do that.

Which is why you need development.

Crafting a Nonprofit Development Plan

Now that you have an idea about why development is more effective than fundraising, how do you do it well?

Here’s a secret: nobody in development works alone.

Even if you are the only person in the nonprofit who is focused on charitable giving, if you go it alone, you’ll fail. In short: development is a team sport.

The best example of this comes from David Dunlop and Buck Smith. In the late 1970s, they created a methodology for systematically working with prospects. With so much pressure to raise money and so many people to ask, they were forced to get organized and enlist help. The result was what became known as Moves Management.

The concept is simple: Someone, who they called the “prime” was in charge of the process. That was usually the development officer. They enlisted others, called “secondaries.” Secondaries could be anyone, from your nonprofit’s volunteers to the president and board chair, or even acquaintances of the prospect.

Then they divided the tasks into two categories: foreground tasks—those which were specific to getting the gift from that particular donor, and background tasks—those that generally supported your efforts but were not targeted to the donor.

Let’s say you’re holding the “Best Buddy in Binghamton” award. If your prospect was being honored as a Best Buddy, then that’s a foreground move. If he’s in the audience seeing an example of where he could be next year, that’s a background move.

To sum it up, an intentional combination of foreground and background moves by the primary and secondaries are carried out to lead to a charitable gift solicitation of the prospect. But how, specifically, will you make that happen? Here are a few steps and best practices to follow:

Form a development team

The most important part of creating a development plan, whether it’s to ask for one gift or many, is having the right team. As management guru Jim Collins would remind us, to be successful you need to have the right people on the bus.

In development, that starts with your nonprofit’s leadership: the board chair and executive director. Yes, you need their blessing, but you need much, much more. They have to commit to actively participating. Hiring a development officer does not let them off the hook from asking for charitable gifts. In fact, it should increase the time they spend on it, and make it much more effective.

One of the least mentioned, yet most important jobs of a development officer is the role of “organizer-in-chief.” For example, notice above when discussing Moves Management that we didn’t say that the development officer makes the solicitation.

The most effective solicitations are made by the people who the prospect respects the most. That’s usually not the development professional. It’s more likely to be the top volunteer, the board chair, the top staff member, the executive director. It could also be another board member, or a community leader, or a mutual friend committed to your mission.

Think of a development officer’s job as a theater director. Yes, sometimes they’re in the play, but typically they’re behind the scenes, pulling it all together.

To give your development efforts some gravitas in your organization, you may want to formalize the roles through the creation of a Development Committee. It could be made up of just board members, or board, staff, and volunteers who are actively interested in your charitable gift revenue stream. The role of the committee is to engage in training to help them identify giving prospects and help you take the necessary steps to solicit the gift.

Identify specific organizational goals

And what about goals? Get more money, right? Sure—but it can’t stop there.

For many, especially members of your board, it may be hard to believe that money isn’t the only development goal that counts. This isn’t to suggest that money isn’t in the top two, but another measure can indicate so much more: the number of donors.

The classic development “chicken or egg” question goes like this: would you rather have one gift of a million dollars or a million gifts of one dollar each? Well, it depends, right? That single million-dollar gift may take three years to get, and once in hand, may not come again for another three years, if at all. On the other hand, getting lots of small gifts will cost you more money for solicitation. Yet for small gifts, the good news is that if someone goes away, you still have $999,999 left! Plus, some of those small gifts could grow into big ones over time.

The best answer is “a little of column A and a little of column B.” The total dollar is a measure of short-term health, while the number of donors is a measure of long-term health. Each is important for ensuring a well-funded mission.

Now that we established that you need both, it’s important to focus on when they come in. Creating a simple grid of months at the top, and a number of donors and dollars below each month is a good start.

Take a look at this nonprofit development chart.

Then, create a visual graph. If each month represents the “Y” axis, then let’s have one of three kinds of descriptions down the side:

  • The constituent type could be friends, alumni/patients/clients, board members, volunteers, staff
  • Gift level could be $1 to $99; $100 to $499; $500 to $999; and $1,000 and above
  • Method of asking could be direct mail, personal solicitation, grant proposal, special event, social media, etc.

How do you set your goals within these boxes? Most start with last year’s results and estimate based on your projected activities where each box will change. At a minimum, you should increase each box by the rate of inflation. Keeping a goal the same year-over-year is actually falling behind. In five years, you’ll begin to see the erosion in your spending power.

If you really want to up your game, look at exactly what you’re doing to raise money in a particular category, and don’t be shy about setting a challenging goal.

Create a development schedule

Your schedule of activities goes hand-in-glove with your monthly goals. For example, if each year you hold your gala in February, your monthly number of dollars and donors should reflect that. If you change it to March, don’t keep the February goals the same!

To start, reflect your broad solicitation activities each month, such as direct mail, social media, email, and events.

Then examine the submission requirement schedules of any businesses, foundations, and government agencies that require proposals. Enter their submission dates, then backdate to account for your work on the proposals and project when you’ll hear about the results.

The most difficult solicitation activities to schedule are your major gifts and planned gifts from individual donors. Of course, you can’t exactly plan when someone’s “will matures,” so that their bequest comes your way. It’s not much easier to project when they might sign a life-income agreement (ex: a charitable gift annuity) or even make a significant gift.

You might be disappointed to find out that the gift you expected in May won’t occur until June, but equally as excited when the gift you didn’t think would happen until September fills your hole for May!

The bottom line is that while your development schedule is in no way an exact science, researching and planning beforehand can set your team up for ongoing success.

Check-in and refine strategies

As you can surely tell by now, all of the above—especially goal setting, activity planning, and monitoring your progress—requires strong communications from all parties involved. In other words, there are no “to-da” moments (imagine a drape being pulled off an easel by someone in a top hat) in making, setting, or meeting goals.

Surprises, good and bad, cause unnecessary stress to your board, executive director, and financial management team. The temptation to hide your results to wow your audience or put off any discomfort must be avoided. Report your progress regularly, and to your surprise, you may get some offers to help.

Then, be sure to refine your development strategies as needed to ensure your team is still on track to meet your goals despite any roadblocks or setbacks. 

Nonprofit Development Training

Every day, nonprofit development makes progress as a profession.

Going back to Moves Management, when it was introduced, few people conceived of the need, or the benefits, of a system to solicit major gifts from individuals. Asking for big gifts was learned, and implemented by trial and error. Either you did the right thing or not, which meant you were good at it, or not.

Luckily, however, an accumulation of knowledge means that today’s development officers and volunteers don’t need to rely on guesswork. There are tried and true techniques in just about every method of charitable gift solicitation.

And the new methods? You’ll usually find that the same principles undergird them as the traditional methods. It’s just that technology has changed.

This is great news. A body of knowledge is evolving that everyone can learn based on their nonprofit’s needs and mission, and the learner’s interests and personality.

But how can you equip your nonprofit development team with the resources they need? Here are some great courses and videos to consider:

Creating Sustainable Development Systems for Your Nonprofit

Thinking about the long term is hard—especially with all your problems today! In this introduction to sustainable systems, Tycely Williams, Chief Development Officer at America’s Promise Alliance, takes you through the process of setting up systems including compensation systems and systems for employee feedback.

Creating a long-term future for your nonprofit—maybe even a future without you—is daunting. Get some peace-of-mind in this insightful program.

Create a Development Plan that Works

Does your nonprofit suffer from the Shiny Penny Syndrome—where they jump at every new fundraising idea they see? Does your board or management team expect you to raise unprecedented amounts of money with few resources and no help?

Linda Lysakowski is here to help. She’ll show you how to create a well-written development plan, including who needs to be involved, what a comprehensive development plan should look like, and how to implement and evaluate the plan within your organization.

This powerful course will also cover what the development plan is and is not, and how it helps you stay on track and not get derailed by every shiny object that comes down the road. You will learn why it is critical to involve the right people in the planning and where to get the information you need.

Bonus: This resource also provides learners with free samples and templates to use right away in helping create your plan.

The Storytelling Nonprofit Master Class

Humans learn through stories. No doubt, you need facts and figures to back up your nonprofit’s effectiveness, but to raise the money you need, be sure to tell the story behind those numbers as well. This is a first-of-its-kind online class that shows nonprofit professionals a step-by-step process for telling stories that raise money and awareness.

This course is taught through 10+ hours of instructional video content inside The StoryTelling Nonprofit’s online classroom. In addition to the instructional videos, you’ll also receive worksheets and resources that complement each lesson and help you implement what you’re learning. Finally, you’ll receive access to the discussion forums inside the virtual classroom as well as a private Facebook group for ongoing discussion and support with your storytelling.

Meet Your Mission and Achieve Your Vision Through Good Planning

Is your staff floundering because they’re not sure what their goals and purpose are? Is your board sick of so-called “strategic planning”? Can you hear the groans when you even mention the word? This powerful online course helps you turn their groans into words of praise when they discover how a properly crafted strategic plan can help your organization grow and thrive.

As you progress through this course, you will learn how to create a plan that works—one that helps your organization achieve its mission and fulfill its vision.

You will know what a good strategic planning process involves, who should be included in the planning process, what the final plan should look like, and how often it should be reviewed and updated. You’ll also learn about compiling research data, conducting planning retreats, and establishing measurements so the plan can be easily implemented, evaluated, and updated. You’ll even receive templates and samples you can use right now to create your plan and subsequently measure your progress toward it.

Bring the structure you need to operate most efficiently and efficiently to your team now.

Raise More by Creating Scalable Fundraising Systems for your Nonprofit

Are you always looking for new donors… always worried about when checks will come in… and constantly throwing new fundraising strategies against the wall to see what sticks? If it feels like your nonprofit is stuck on the donor treadmill, this training is for you.

During this webinar, you’ll learn:

  • What a donor fundraising system is, and why it is such a powerful tool for your nonprofit
  • The most important fundraising systems to build for your organization
  • A simple step-by-step process for building sustainable fundraising systems
  • Tips and strategies for successfully implementing systems at your organization

Fundraising systems are the sustainable funding models that turn struggling nonprofits into thriving organizations. A good system makes your fundraising knowable and scalable. It clarifies decision-making, conserves your resources, and allows you to raise more money while using less bandwidth at your organization.

The Impact Method™

In today’s fast-paced digital world, running a nonprofit with traditional strategic planning is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t work. To make a real impact, you need a new method.

Enter: the Impact Method™. Thriving Nonprofits use the Impact Method™ because:

  • Their plans are meaningful, powerful, and always up to date
  • They have a roadmap to build their team
  • They have a system for continually improving
  • Their teams are agile, aligned, and focused
  • Their brand is clearly defined
  • Their key metrics mean something again

By following the Impact Method™ you can set your organization and its development team up for continued success going forward, allowing yourself to completely revolutionize your daily operations.


Yes, nonprofit development is about raising money. Some may even call it fundraising. Yet it’s much more than that. Nonprofit development is about creating a solid foundation of support for your organization for years to come.

Financial support is only one manifestation. How about when your expansion is challenged at the local town council. An effective development effort means your supporters are there to tell everyone what great work you do in the community.

What if someone who really needs your services is hesitant to reach out? If they knew someone who supported your mission financially, you have an advocate to encourage them to take advantage of your offerings.

How about if you hold a festival to help the community and raise money for your cause? The donors who show their love with their gifts will be the first ones to bring their family and friends to your event! When people step forward with their monetary support, they say your mission matters louder than anyone can do with words alone. It’s a win-win!

For more information on nonprofit development and day-to-day operations, be sure to check out our other educational resources below:

Train your team in effective nonprofit development with Nonprofit Courses.

Published by

Matt Hugg

Matt Hugg is the president of Nonprofit.Courses.

See his bio here.

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