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Anticipating Development Needs: Stay Ahead of the Plane

You may have read in another blog post that I’m a bit of an aviation enthusiast. In the aviation world, there’s a phrase that I think also parallels an effective development program:

Stay ahead of the plane.

But what do you mean by that?

In aviation, a lot of events occur during the pre-flight, take-off, climb, cruise portion of the flight, and then the preparation to descend, landing and post-flight checklist. Did you check the fuel levels? Are the engines set to takeoff power? Did you retract the landing gear? Has cabin pressurization been set? Have you confirmed the fixes? Do you know the process for initiating a go-around at landing if a deer darts onto the runway? At which gate will you be parking upon arrival at the destination?

In a smaller plane, maybe one that you see crop dusting a field or giving a bird’s eye view of a tropical location to happy tourists, those series of events occur more slowly, simply because the plane may be flying at 100 mph, a relatively slower speed of flight.

But when you’re the pilot in command of a jet such as what you encounter with commercial airlines or private executive jets, those milestones occur considerably more quickly when flying at 400, 500 or even 600 mph.

A good pilot and her first officer are always staying ahead of the plane. They aren’t merely thinking about the fact they’re over Ohio at the moment and the skies are smooth. Instead, they’re anticipating the next need of the flight: Evaluating available fuel, checking in on the weather conditions at the destination, identifying alternate landing airports should there be an issue, keying-in upcoming frequencies on the radio prior to ATC telling them to do so.

An effective development program is similarly working ahead. Whether your shop is a sporty, fast-moving, jet-like operation, or perhaps a budding program comprised of a dedicated staff of one (we’ve all been there and are cheering you on!) you need to always be thinking a week, a month, a year down the road.

Consider carving out dedicated time on your calendar – perhaps 30 minutes every other week – to take a step back from the present-day needs and projects, and instead think through what you will be doing three months from now.

And then, take it one step further: What colleague, which Board member do you need to reach out to today so as to prepare for that need three months from now? What assets need to be created (logos from your designer, taglines for approval by the marketing department, buy-in and consensus from your CEO) today so that your strategy three months from now is on-track for success?

The other benefit of working ahead is that things to come up. Life happens. Sometimes those pop-up occurrences are good things, other times they’re obstacles to overcome. By working ahead, you have both more time to address those surprises as they arrive while keeping your eye on the task at hand, and you also permit yourself the headspace to really and truly innovate, rather than simply throw something together.

A good pilot stays ahead of the plane. She anticipates the needs of the flight, the aircraft and the passengers before they are due to occur. So too can you, the astute philanthropy professional, keep your development strategy on-course no matter what clouds, turbulence (“chop” in aviation parlance) or course corrections arise.

Michael Pettry


Cape Fletcher Associates

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