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  • Writer's pictureHillary Frances

Development Operations: mindsets and processes to save time

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Development operations are the systems and practices that function behind the scenes on a fundraising team. They are things like prospect research, gift processing and gift acknowledgment, and data administration.

If you take one thing away from us, let it be this: Your systems and practices exist for the sake of front line efficiency and organizational visibility. Nothing else. You may be tempted to use development operations to build a well-oiled machine, but sometimes we make the mistake of building machines that distract us rather than save us time. How can you tell the difference between efficiency and sophistication?

We want to share some of the mindsets and processes that will help you manage development operations when you have no margin for excess or error.


The first mindset is to think structurally and systemically. By this we mean that your solutions to problems must consider the organization as a whole. Your goal in designing processes is not necessarily to make someone’s job easier, it’s to make the organization more effective at reaching its goals. Of course, those two things are often congruent - but not always. You can evaluate if you are thinking structurally with your system design if it answers the question, “Does implementing this system or process get us closer to our organizational goals or does it help a few people with their individual jobs?”

One example is the constant need for reports. The strategic question is how to standardize a reporting schedule so that requests are not made too often and that the team has the data it needs. This may be frustrating in the short term as it can feel like information is being withheld, but in the long run, relying on a standardized report schedule allows more to be addressed by the admin while also having consistent data to compare to over time.

A second key mindset to maintain efficiency is a service mindset. Development operation systems are in service to the front line. One of my favorite examples of this is the Development Operations Manager for one of the organizations we work with who wakes up every morning and thinks about how to improve processes for her frontline fundraisers. She gets to work and pulls dashboards to show each of her fundraisers where they are on their key metrics. She writes gift proposals and thank you notes. She does not wait for requests, she anticipates them. She is service-oriented and her team is thriving because of it.

The last mindset is that of sustainability. A development operations professional may come across as pessimistic or pushy when asking follow up questions, like “what’s the end goal here,” or “what do you envision doing with the results of this data?” But she’s asking these questions in order to ensure that she can create a sustainable process for the organization. She’s safeguarding the organization from creating one-off processes that may feel urgent in the moment, but are not important for long term sustainability. We’ve seen a lot of time wasted (and hair pulled out) trying to reorient an entire system around a single outlier. These are important, but they should be considered in context.


So next, we’re going to look at these processes in more detail. We want you to be able to identify gaps in processes that impact your fundraising efficiency. We recommend three key processes for effective fundraising. We consider these the low hanging fruit that will help you exponentially on limited resources.

They are: prospect research, gift processing and gift acknowledgment, and data administration. You may have never done these things, or you may already have these in place but aren’t sure if you have gaps. Some examples of gaps might be:

  • Donors are indicating that they haven’t been thanked for a gift

  • You’re not sure if you deposited a check

  • You’re not sure if it’s a donor’s fourth or fifth gift

  • Donors ask for gift receipts

  • You’re not sure if a donor is capable of a larger gift

  • You’re spending more than 30 minutes to identify a major gift prospect

  • You have duplicate donors in the database and can’t remember which one is the accurate entry

A few thoughts on how to implement each of the three processes with minimal resources:

First, prospect research. At Seed, we are big fans of adopting and operationalizing prospect research in your annual giving or major gifts efforts. Prospecting is research that identifies major gift prospects, ensuring that you are fully aware of everyone’s giving potential within the donor base. You’d be shocked how much giving your donor base is doing outside your organization.

Organizations with efficient prospecting processes institute regular prospect screenings to determine propensity and capacity of giving. Then, the major gift officers can filter the lists and begin the qualification phase based on their potential. Inefficient prospecting processes might look like spending hours googling “wealthy people in Minneapolis” or similar search terms. Sometimes it is necessary to use google and social media to do prospect research, but the key is to identify if your organization requires more efficient prospecting overall and if so, invest in a prospect research tool or service to more efficiently complete your screening. Seed uses a subscription to DonorSearch for all of our prospect research. It allows us to batch upload lists of donors and receive results within 2 weeks.

Second, we have gift processing and acknowledgement. Organizations with efficient gift processing have developed a documented set of procedures to record gifts and thank donors in a timely manner. Gift recording is focused on identifying critical descriptors of both the gift and the donor. Both gift processing and acknowledgement can be automated through an effective CRM (customer relationship management) system.

Gift descriptors include tags or categories like these:

  • Where did the gift come from, which appeal triggered it?

  • What was its designation?

  • Was it in honor of someone?

  • Was it a recurring gift?

  • Descriptors of a donor would be things like:

  • Program interest

  • Biographical information

  • Any other notes that can be surmised from the gift

The process of tagging both gifts and donors with these descriptors is important in your gift processing practices.

Gift processing also includes procedures to thank donors in a timely manner. The most efficient organizations automate gift receipting, but maintain a personalized process for thanking donors. No step is too minor to consider:

  • How do you process credit cards

  • Who deposits checks and when

  • Who records the gift and how

  • How do you code the gift so that it is matched to the appeal

  • How are receipts sent

  • What is the text for the receipt

  • How long after the gift date will the donor receive a thank you letter, note, etc.?

Lastly, we have processes for managing data. One of the most valuable services development operations can provide to front line fundraisers is trustworthy data. Rarely have I worked with an organization that has airtight data. It is common to have inconsistencies in how data is defined, collected, and analyzed.

First, a database is important if you are receiving more gifts than you can easily track in a spreadsheet. Great databases allow you great visualization. They create live dashboards of your giving trends, allow you to record actions for each of your donors and where you are in the cultivation process. They allow you to connect appeals to giving data and help you manage segmentation.

Sometimes organizations are drawn to big robust tools that while free, require heavy personnel management. A key question to ask yourself is: “What type of database will increase efficiency?” The answer to that question will direct your decision.

Once your database is set up, we suggest setting up processes for data entry and data analysis. The best data teams I’ve worked with have a handbook or a visual workflow that accompanies their database and includes definitions of the most basic terms, instructions for how to enter data into the system, a calendar for data entry, and the parameters that generate standard reports. Data clean up should also be part of your organization’s routine. Removal of duplicates, filling in missing data, or dealing with inconsistencies are all part of this process.

These mindsets and processes may seem overwhelming at first glance, but when integrated into your organizational culture, they become routine. Over time, they consume less mental energy.

To support your efforts, we’re hosting a free webinar on Friday, July 26th from 12:00-1:00pm MST. I will talk with Blake Stockard, a development operations professional who founded Kumwe Systems. Kumwe Systems is a consulting firm that helps small to mid-sized nonprofits build development operations for scale. We hope you’ll join us for the wide-ranging conversation on how to make development operations work on limited resources. Click here to register.

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