How to Achieve Calm Confidence in Fundraising… Part 4: W is for Work-Back Schedule

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Ashley and I just bought a new home, and before we move in, there are all sorts of things we have to do. But before we direct our attention to that house, we need to sell the house we’ve lived in for the past nine years. Though we’ve taken very good care of our current home and have made a number of improvements, there are still a ton of little (and some big) things we’ve “been meaning to get to” for a really long time.

Between being in a great seller’s market, not wanting to pay two mortgages, and being excited to enjoy our new home during the summer months, we agreed to an aggressive schedule with our realtor for getting the house on the market.

The first thing we did was create a list of tasks we needed to do before the house could be listed. At first it seemed simple enough—a little paint here, some landscaping there—but when we reviewed the list and revisited the deadline, we were more than a little nervous about getting everything done on time.

W is for Work-Back Schedule

This is the fourth in a series of posts I'm writing about the framework I use to help nonprofits learn to adopt a thoughtful and systematic approach to their work and, in turn, achieve a state of calm confidence in fundraising.

I use the acronym SLOWER to help define the elements of the framework: Schedule, Level-set expectations, Organize and optimize, Work-back schedule, Execution, Record and repeat.

Today, I’ll talk about the Work-Back Schedule.

Most people’s reaction to having a lot to accomplish in very little time is to jump right in and start doing tasks as quickly as possible in order to start checking them off the list.

This is almost always the wrong thing to do.

Once the initial shock of how much work we had to do wore off, Ashley and I woke up and did what we advise our clients to do. We built a work-back schedule to verify that we would be able to meet the deadline for listing our house.

Preparing a work-back schedule also helped us determine the order in which we should complete the various tasks on our list to have the best chance of meeting the deadline.

Had we had the opportunity to set our own deadline, we could have just as easily used a work-back schedule to make the most accurate estimate possible of when we would be ready to list the house.

What’s a Work-Back Schedule?

A work-back schedule is like any other type of schedule of tasks you plan to complete, except you start with the finished product, event, or outcome and work backward to the beginning.

For example, Ashley and I have maintained office space in the basement of our home for years and haven’t been too concerned about the unfinished ceiling or wood panelling on the walls. So one of the major tasks on our list was to drywall and furnish the basement as a living space.

Here’s an excerpt from our work-back schedule for that task:

June 21: Clear basement for drywall June 22: Build frame for drywall June 23–24: Hang drywall June 25–26: Tape and mud drywall June 27–28: Drywall drying time June 29: Prime drywall June 30: Paint and clean up basement July 1: Install basement bathroom fixtures and stage with furniture July 2: Photograph fully staged house July 3: List the house with photos of the finished basement

Had any of the tasks in this list not happened on time, we would have had to make up time someplace else in the schedule, or not meet our deadline.

Making up time, if it’s even an option, often adds costs to your project because you typically have to pay people to work overtime or add resources to speed up delivery.

Work-back schedules can be far more complex, but even one as simple as the sample above can mean the difference between easily meeting a deadline or leaving your success to chance.

Putting the Work-Back Schedule to Work for You

The same general approach to completing everything from skyscrapers to computer programs on time and on budget, is the same approach to use for planning fundraising activities, be it a direct mail piece or an event.

When planning your next fundraising project:

  1. Take a little time to think through all of the tasks you need to complete.
  2. Being sure to account for review/approval periods, note the number of days/weeks each step will take to complete.
  3. List the tasks in the order that you want to complete them.
  4. Starting with the final task, set its finish date based on your overall deadline, and then set its start date based on the number of days/weeks you estimated for that task in step 2.
  5. Work backward through the tasks, repeating step 4 and basing each task’s finish date on the following task’s start date.

When you’ve completed this process for each task, you’ll have the start date for your project. If that date has already passed, you will need to compress your schedule by eliminating or cutting corners on nonessential tasks, recruiting assistance from others to help you accomplish more work in less time, or negotiating a new deadline.

Some tasks can be performed by multiple people at the same time, and some are dependent on other tasks being completed before they can be started. Look for opportunities to schedule these different types of tasks to best support your available time and/or budget.

It may take a few times to get the hang of building a work-back schedule, but after a while, you’ll wonder how you ever managed a project without one.


 Image Credit: Lindsey Turner (with changes)