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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