Holistic Budgeting and Program Planning: Where Do We Even Begin?

We can likely all agree that the fundraising industry has changed pretty significantly over the last decade.


More organizations are taking that valuable ‘monthly first’ approach … integration has become more than just a buzzword and it’s in practice across campaign messaging and audience planning … and, across all sectors, we are seeing nonprofits expand their investments into new channels to help grow and diversify donor files.


But with all this change, how have we modified our planning process to accommodate this new environment? Or really, has the process changed at all?


Very often, the budgeting process remains siloed and programs/channels are given specific cost and revenue goals that align with prior years without a real review or analysis of what that program or channel’s budget should look like based on how the file dynamics may be changing.


For example, if we’re seeing more valuable donors come in from new digital acquisition efforts when compared to some of the lower performing direct mail acquisition lists – should we really continue to mail at those same levels vs. shift some of that investment into more digital acquisition once we know more long-term value is coming from that channel?


We’re sure you’re thinking – ‘shift investment of course’ – but if we aren’t truly planning for the program in a holistic way, is that really happening?


The truth is, it can be really challenging to plan holistically, especially when there are multiple departments and agencies at the table with competing goals. But the good news is, it’s not impossible. And in order for us to ensure that programs are moving forward in a planned and calculated way … it’s necessary to do. And, it’s also sort of fun if you ask us!


So, where do you begin? How do you look at fine-tuning your processes year after year?


First things first – we’ve shared a few challenges we’ve seen nonprofits contend with when it comes to budgeting and planning in a more holistic way here. Acknowledging these challenges and committing to overcome them is step one.


Status Quo Budgeting. Aligning investment dollars and revenue goals with prior years down to the program and channel level is going to keep your program just that – status quo. In order to move forward, we have to move away from the practice of opening last year’s budget and saving it as a new year and start thinking outside the box. Budgeting is the time to make real, strategic recommendations for the program that will allow us to be more nimble throughout the year – using total program spend and allocating that accordingly to maximize investment both as we plan leading up to the start of the year, and then throughout the year, building on results as they happen.

Waiting Until Budget Season. If you ask a fundraiser when they can anticipate being the busiest, you’ll probably get a total of four words – the first two being ‘year end’ and the second two being ‘budget season.’ Unfortunately, timelines associated with budgets don’t always allow us to take a step back and look at the program holistically with all of the relevant stakeholders at the table. This is why ongoing planning and integrated analytics across the program are critical. The budget and planning conversations should not start when a budget is kicked off – but in fact these conversations should never truly stop. Ongoing integration and coordination throughout the year are critical.

Asking the Question – Whose Money is It? We spend a lot of time focusing on whose money is whose – whether that’s across departments, or from an agency perspective. With short-sighted vision on who takes ‘credit’ for what initiative, we will lose sight of the big picture and how to maximize the bottom line in the current fiscal year, and beyond.


When approaching budget development, it should be tedious and methodical. The following are just some of the key pieces that should be considered:

      • Industry trends
      • Prior years performance (also consider election year vs. non-election year, performance associated with natural disasters, etc. as relevant for your organization)
      • Testing results and analysis
      • Long-term program goals
      • Direct mail cost assumptions – to include updated rolling out pricing for control packages, along with any assumed increase to postage or paper (never a dull moment here!)
      • Media spend recommendations based on past results
      • Determine what investment is needed for Research and Development across the program based on the learnings required to move the program forward
      • Audience and segment-level results across channels and programs
      • Integrated communications calendar


As the budget is developed, consider where there may be areas across the program that make sense to really dig into – should you still be investing the same in direct mail acquisition, or is there room to divest from that program to support diversifying the budget in other ways? Are you going too deep into your lapsed audience and reacquiring some donors at a significant investment? Are there areas where you really should be expanding based on recent performance and learnings? Identify where and how additional investment could move the program forward, and where there may be opportunities to shift investment from areas that may not be as productive (or just may not need the same level of investment as in prior years).


It’s scary to change what’s been done before, but as programs become increasingly more complex, it is necessary to remove those channel and program-specific lenses and approach budgeting holistically across the entire program – with the ultimate goals of maximizing revenue and ensuring the health of the file for the future.

Candice Briddell

Candice Briddell, Managing Partner and Co-Owner, has worked within the fundraising and marketing industry for nearly twenty years and has been a part of the MINDset team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was integral in the retention marketing program at AOL.