Is this your organization? Then don’t rush into a major gifts campaign

Look around you. You may be able to save yourself the time and expense of conducting a campaign feasibility study. (At KMA we call it a planning study because we assess feasibility, and also produce a campaign plan.)  

Just look for these six signals that you may not be on the verge of greatness if you have a campaign now.

  1. Ego imbalance - The campaign is driven more by the sense that you ‘should’ be having a campaign than by a specific need or goal. Sometimes organizational or personal ego comes into play and we say “Organization X had a campaign and they did great. We should be having a campaign.” This “keeping-up-with-the-competition” instinct might get you started but it won’t get you through it.
  2. Vague vision - You don’t have a well-defined project that is truly strategic to your impact. If you face almost unlimited need in your work, or open-ended potential to expand – if only you had the money -- the temptation is to set an artificial goal and craft a project or menu of projects to fit. Unless the project has its own compelling logic, an internal coherence and consistency, it will be hard to make a case to donors for the exceptional gifts you’ll require.
  3. Uncommitted board - Your board members are not generous and consistent givers to your organization.  This barely needs commentary. Donors expect leadership from the board; gifts will vary according to individual circumstances but the commitment must be clear. And as my partner Ron likes to say once people “decorate the mahogany” with their cheque, their motivation to support fundraising rises rapidly.  
  4. Disengaged CEO -- Your CEO resists getting involved in fundraising. She or he can’t make time for seeing donors, or other priorities always take precedence.  CEOs naturally expects others to lead the fundraising, but it’s a problem when they don’t see themselves as being on the team.  
  5. Untested case - You didn’t bother to test your case and appeal with any stakeholders in advance. Convinced of the compelling nature of your cause and program, you’re sure the money is out there and so, why not get down to the asking?  Yet we all develop blind spots. After only a few months on staff most people begin to conform to the prevailing institutional myths about the organization’s case and plans. So how do you counter institutional bias and the inevitable myopia?  Candid assessment of your plans, and frank, even confidential, discussion about the likelihood that your key donors will support can deliver some unpleasant shocks but nothing like the shock of a failed campaign. 
  6. Insufficient resources - You resist allocating funds for the costs of a campaign, particularly for the staff needed to succeed. A campaign is expensive and the impulse is to cut corners. To save money, you’re tempted to delay hiring that administrative staff member. You’re toying with the idea of adding the campaign to your own or an associate’s duties. And the cost of campaign counsel seems wholly excessive. Yet a major gift drive or capital appeal is called a “campaign” for a reason – it takes resources, commitment, and tremendous effort. Compromising on those is to court failure.

If any of these are strong features of life at your organization, you may want to pause or even rewind before committing to months of effort and expense. Invest whatever time and money and internal political capital it takes to ensure you have a clear strategy, a compelling and tested case, a committed team, sufficient resources, and engaged leadership.

Without those, you’re courting failure—for your organization, and for whoever championed a campaign in the first place. 

- Larry Matthews