Data & Technology

What Is A Standard Operating Procedure, And How To Create One For Your Nonprofit Development Team

A standard operating procedure, or SOP, is a document containing step-by-step instructions to guide the core functions of your Development department.

Data and process management may not often be at the top of mind for Development teams, falling below more urgent fundraising and donor engagement priorities. While completely understandable, this phenomenon often leaves issues and inefficiencies unaddressed until a crisis arises, creating a cycle of perpetual stress, disorganization, and missed opportunities. 

Is there a different way to do things? We spoke to the Development team of Instil partner organization GLJ-ILRF about the process they underwent to create a Standard Operating Procedure for their organization, and what other organizations can learn from them.

Webinar on-demand: how to wrangle your data & build sustainable processes, with GLF-ILRF (Watch Now)


First of all, what is a Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP?


A standard operating procedure, or SOP, is a document containing step-by-step instructions to guide the core functions of your organization or department. You can think of an SOP as your Development playbook, a tool for defining and standardizing processes across the team, ensuring that new employees are adequately trained and onboarded, and providing a point of reference for any internal or external questions about how things are done. 

For Development teams, this often includes instructions on the external processes of donor cultivation and stewardship, as well as internal data management expectations for tracking and reporting on external work.

How do you create a Standard Operating Procedure for nonprofit Development teams?

While there are technically no right or wrong ways to go about creating an SOP for your department, here’s a breakdown of the process that GLJ-ILRF went through. These basic steps are a great starting point for building and customizing your own process.

1. Dream big!

Caitlin and Patricia started their journey by allowing themselves to dream big as they considered how their ideal Development department would look and function. Questions they asked themselves to start the brainstorming process included:

  • How would our ideal Development department run internally?
  • How would our ideal Development department interact with constituents?
  • What sort of metrics would our ideal Development department track?

2. Clarify your core values and goals

Setting some big-picture expectations and goals helped the GLJ-ILRF team distill their core values and goals. While capacity and other constraints might limit them from immediately achieving their vision of a perfect Development process, the principles behind the answers to their initial questions would provide a guide post for the nitty-gritty work of defining processes for the immediate future.

3. Plan for your capacity today

Recognizing that as a two-person department, they lacked the capacity to fully execute all of the ideals that they identified, Caitlin and Patricia emphasized the importance of making realistic plans that match your department’s current capacity, while still upholding your core values and goals.

4. Identify your audience

For any nonprofit Development or Marketing teams, defining your audience (or audiences) is a crucial first step in building communication and engagement plans. For the GLJ-ILRF team, focusing on getting to know and better understand their current list of supporters was top priority for the next year. Whether you’re focusing on donor acquisition, donor stewardship, a little of both, or a further subset of people, identifying who you will be communicating with will help you clarify the associated processes that need to be built or codified.

5. Determine how you want to communicate with them

Once you’ve defined who you’re talking to, the next step is figuring out how you want to communicate with them. This includes determining:

  • An expected cadence or schedule for outreach
  • What channels will you use, such as email, direct mail, one-on-one phone calls, telemarketing phone calls, etc.
  • Any varying communication expectations for different subsets of your audience.

6. Write down every single step of your process

Now you’re ready to start creating your actual SOP. Thinking of this document as a resource you will use to onboard future staff members and reading it through the lens of someone who isn’t familiar with your department can help you make sure to record every step, even ones that might seem obvious to you.

"We started the document with our purpose statement to ground both the reader and ourselves, we went into the audience section, and then we were really focused on process. We had a process section and broke it down into our main categories of work, so for us it was fundraising, donor stewardship, events, and then monitoring and evaluation." - Patricia Ndimantang, Development Associate, GLJ-ILRF

7. Break your yearly planning down into Quarters

Feeling overwhelmed by all of the processes and details? Here is where Caitlin and Patricia recommend starting to break your plans and goals down into more manageable phases. Start with what you want to accomplish in the Quarter ahead, and go from there.

8. Assess your tools - are they helping you meet your goals?

Once you’re clear on your big picture goals, and the processes within your current capacity, it is helpful to evaluate the tools at your disposal. The right technology can save huge amounts of time and make difficult processes easy, but the wrong tools often do just the opposite, adding more difficult and time consuming tasks to your to-do list. If your organization’s tech is making your life more difficult, or just not doing everything you wish that it would, it’s the perfect time to start looking for new options. Having clear goals in mind will help you evaluate vendor options and assess what tools are the best fit for your unique needs and plans as a department. 

“Make sure that the tools you’re using are actually supporting the work that you do. Tools are only good if you use them! We were very thoughtful about cutting tools that weren’t working for our organization and bringing in tools that would fill in the gaps that have been missing.” - Caitlin Hoover, Development Director, GLJ-ILRF

9. As you increase capacity, add on to your SOP!

Congratulations, you’ve created an SOP for your department! You’re not done yet though - as you increase your capacity, develop new strategies, integrate new technology, or experience other shifts in your department, keeping your SOP up-to-date is important. Set a cadence for regularly reviewing and updating your SOP to ensure that it remains a go-to source of truth for your team.

Looking for more information about creating an SOP for your Development team? Listen to our whole conversation with Caitlin and Patricia from GLJ-ILRF for in-depth explanations, stories from their journey, and a look at some of the incredible results they tracked after following an SOP for a year.

Webinar on-demand: how to wrangle your data & build sustainable processes, with GLF-ILRF (Watch Now)

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