“I thought all publicity was good publicity!”…Not necessarily.

Kim Koch

By Kim Koch, Consultant

Every nonprofit competing for donor dollars is thrilled when positive media coverage increases community awareness about its organization.  It’s a gift to be thrust into the spotlight without spending a dime to promote your mission!

So, what do you do when this happens while you’re in the quiet phase of a capital campaign? 

We highly recommend that you hold off on engaging the media during this phase of the campaign for the following reasons:

  • To wait until you have a newsworthy moment.  It’s more impactful to reach out to the press when there’s a big fundraising milestone (e.g., being at 90% of your goal).  Sending numerous, premature announcements to the media will tire them of telling your story and dilute the effectiveness of announcing a major fundraising achievement.
  • To avoid preemptive giving.  Talking to the press about your capital campaign will cast a wide net to a large pool of donors.  If you cast that net too soon, you’re likely to receive multiple small gifts – possibly from large donor prospects who had the potential to give much more with proper engagement.  More specifically, you lose the opportunity to have intimate, one-on-one conversations with high-capacity philanthropists about why they like to give and why your project should be a giving priority.
  • To time your capital campaign message appropriately.  Quiet phase fundraising allows you to calibrate, track and project your fundraising progress – allowing organizations to adjust strategies around the goal and timing.  Once your goal is announced to the media, it’s out there!  If you’re having a very successful campaign, you have now lost the opportunity to increase your goal without confusing your donors and the public.  If you’re struggling to meet your goal while the public is watching, your campaign will look like a failure and possibly cause credibility challenges for your campaign and even your organization.

During the quiet phase, your best strategy is to involve the media to promote exciting accomplishments around your mission or the project – without mention of the campaign.  This is the perfect time to talk about the compelling need and how your project will better serve the community while keeping your campaign goal under wraps.  Remember – until you’re ready to go public, typically when you’re at 70-95% of your goal – mum’s the word!

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An Unlikely Success – Lead Gifts Inspire

David Malone

By Dave Malone, President

When an all-volunteer group told us they wanted to build a new $10 million YMCA in a community of just 7,500 people, we knew we had our work cut out for us.  With no executive staff – in fact, no staff at all, no development program (no current donors!), and not even a list of active members (the YMCA had yet to be built), this campaign would be challenging.

When we started the campaign, we knew lead gifts would be important, as they are in all campaigns.  Large gifts, early in a campaign, are critical for several reasons.  First, there’s the gift itself.  Campaigns are about raising money and lead gifts are among the largest that most campaigns receive.  But in addition to the money, lead gifts give a campaign credibility and momentum.  In other words, lead gifts inspire others to give.

In the early days of the campaign, we learned there was a family in town whose members were born and raised there, were salt of the earth people and had sold a major business recently.  We wondered if they could be lead gift donors.  One of the YMCA’s board members knew them well and arranged for a visit.  Over the course of several personal visits with the mother and father of this large family, along with their adult children gathered around the kitchen table in their humble family home, we eventually asked them for a lead gift.  And after all their questions were answered, they said yes to a $3 million lead gift!

This single gift was fully 30% of our goal.  The family’s amazing generosity inspired another lead gift of $2 million and a third of $1.4 million.  The campaign was at 64% of goal in just three lead gifts!  It was an exciting time in a campaign that would go on to reach its goal of $10 million, in large part because of these truly inspiring lead gifts.

Lead gifts, especially from those well known in the community, can legitimize a campaign in the mind of the public and give a campaign forward momentum, creating a snowball effect of more and more donors who also want to participate in the thriving campaign.

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Is it possible to test the wrong amount in your feasibility study?

David Malone

By Dave Malone, President

When a small group of conservation advocates told us they wanted to build a special exploration center, we thought: so far, so good.  When they told us it would cost $68 million, our eyes grew wide and we privately gasped.  While campaigns do succeed at that size and more all over the country, this was a small startup venture that was just an idea at the time.  Fortunately, the group agreed a feasibility study would be a good first step before committing to a substantial campaign of that size.

As we prepared to conduct the study, we grew concerned about how participants would feel about the project and in particular, the projected cost.  But as objective and impartial exercises, feasibility studies aren’t about pre-judging outcomes; they’re about measuring existing donor feedback to the nonprofit’s vision and dream.  On several occasions, we’ve seen campaigns with ambitious goals succeed, sometimes even going over goal!

We started the study as we would any other but by the time we got to the fifth interview, we noticed a concerning pattern was developing.  Participants were floored by the projected cost.  With that early feedback, limited as it was, we recognized that the feasibility study was doing more harm than good and that the high project cost was creating serious credibility issues with the very people that would be needed to make the project succeed.

We hit the brakes and discussed the challenge with our client and recommended that the overall project be divided into smaller distinct phases, each with a lower price tag.  Instead of swinging for the fences and presenting the project as a huge single project, we conducted the remaining study interviews by presenting an incremental project with progressive steps that could culminate in the entire campus being built, eventually.  This strategy was effective at helping study participants see the project as achievable if completed in less expensive stages.

Even with this new strategy, the feasibility study revealed there was not enough donor support to proceed with the project at that time.  Was the study a failure?  Not at all!  The feasibility study did exactly what it was designed to do by revealing that the fundamentals for a successful campaign were not in place and the young organization was not ready for a project of this magnitude.  The study likely saved this organization years of struggle, frustration and discouragement (and a lot of fundraising expense) with a campaign that was never likely to succeed.

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We Could Count our Lead Gift Prospects on One Hand!

Andrea Speth

By Andrea Speth, Vice President for Consulting Services

It is a scary truth that most significant fundraising efforts depend on at least a few larger or major gifts in order to reach their goal. This is often the element that scares fundraisers the most – will they have enough major donors to make a multi-million-dollar fundraising effort possible?

Recently we directed a $2 million-dollar campaign for a rural hospital in a community of 13,000 people.  Because we conducted the feasibility study, we knew that there were only a few people with the capacity for six-figure gifts. After these individuals, potential gifts went down dramatically to $25,000 or less.

The campaign’s success would depend on maximizing these top gift prospects!

To do this, we began by asking ourselves some key questions:

  • Did the potential donor give a gift intention in the feasibility study?
  • What is the strength of their connection to the Hospital?
  • Have they made previous gifts to campaigns? If so, how recently and how much?
  • What is their cumulative giving?
  • What is the estimated financial capacity of the prospect?
  • Who has the strongest connection to them?

By answering these questions, we were able to formulate specific ask strategies to encourage each of the prospects to consider larger gifts. Here’s what happened:

Feasibility Study Gift Intention Actual Gift
$250,000 $1,000,000
$250,000 $500,000
$25,000 $100,000

It’s easy to get intimidated when asking a prospect for a large gift amount. We would challenge you to consider that you are also making a powerful connection between a donor with demonstrated affinity for an organization to a project with far reaching societal impact. Making this connection is powerful and exciting for any fundraiser!

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Are you sure you want to hear if your campaign will succeed?

David Malone

By Dave Malone, President

When a small conservation and environmental education organization asked us to help them raise $5 million for a new education center, we asked them if they had considered a feasibility study.  They were new to capital campaigns and had not.  When we explained the value of a feasibility study, they agreed it would be prudent.

During the study, we tested donor interest in funding a new ultra-green environmental education center.  But donor opinions on the project were mixed.  Constituents asked several important questions that would pose serious challenges to a successful campaign.  When we analyzed the study data, we concluded that under the current circumstances, the organization would likely raise as little as $1 million, and raising $3 million would prove challenging.  They were disappointed.

But the study did not permanently close the door on a campaign.  Instead, our report made several recommendations that would address donor concerns and explained that it might take as long as a year to implement the changes needed to properly position the organization for a successful campaign.  The nonprofit leadership was discouraged and impatient; they wanted to start fundraising now!  To their credit, the executive leadership and board committed to implementing the recommendations, even if reluctantly.

About one year later, they were ready!  Although we initially tested $5 million, and our feasibility study concluded $3 million would be the most they could raise, after investing the time and energy to address donor concerns, the campaign went on to raise $8.25 million!  That was 65% more than their original goal.

Whether your feasibility study gives your campaign a green light, yellow light or red light, it is an invaluable exercise that will significantly improve the probability of a successful capital campaign.

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How a State Governor helped us build our Campaign Cabinet from the top down

David Malone

By Dave Malone, President

We were once called in to direct an urgent capital campaign by a faith-based organization whose roof was failing.  Rainwater was pouring in, causing serious and expensive cosmetic and structural damage.  They needed $6 million.  Time was of the essence.

In planning their campaign, one of our first priorities was recruiting a team of volunteer leaders who would use their connections and influence to help the organization raise money.  Ideal leadership candidates care about the organization, are faithful donors themselves and have connections to other potential donors.

We quickly identified two candidates in the community who met this profile, developed our recruitment strategy and asked them to serve in the important role of Campaign Co-Chairs.  They hesitated.  Although they cared about the organization and agreed the leaking roof was a serious problem, they were busy, the urgent timeline seemed daunting and they just weren’t sure this was the project for them.

At that point, we mentioned that we were scheduled to meet with the sitting governor of Wisconsin at the time, and his wife, to ask them to serve as Honorary Campaign Chairs.  Suddenly they were excited and energized by that possibility and told us to come back if the Governor and his wife agreed.  They did.  We spoke again to the co-chair candidates and with our prestigious Honorary Co-Chairs in place, they quickly agreed.  We then promptly filled the ranks of our campaign cabinet with additional volunteer fundraisers and the campaign went on to be a big success.

When you build a leadership team for your campaign, carefully consider your sequence.  Getting the right people in place at the top can make subsequent recruitments easier, help you attract the best candidates possible and create a cascading momentum as you build your campaign cabinet.

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