4 Keys to Preparing for a Campaign

Zack Macdonald
September 2018

Sometimes it seems like there are two types of non-profits: those in the middle of a capital campaign and those about to be in the middle of a capital campaign.

Whether you are in a campaign or about to start one, or simply want to strengthen your fundraising efforts, here are four ways to get your house in order.

1. Build a culture of philanthropy

The combination of customs, attitudes, habits, people, excellences, and blind spots that make up your current culture are unique to your organization. Your culture can only be changed gradually and with a focused effort.

Organizational history also shapes the present culture, and though history doesn’t actually repeat itself, it “often rhymes” according to Mark Twain.

Your current culture and history can make some development strategies very difficult to implement. They also make other strategies a natural fit. You must address your culture before planning to make major changes or launch a campaign. How you build your culture is going to determine your future success.

2. Don’t bury the headline

Keep an intense focus on your goals. This may sound simple but very often we roll along out of habit and forget to articulate what we want to accomplish. This applies to big things like board agendas and major gift prospect meetings, and to smaller things like weekly check-ins with direct reports and written gift proposals. They all need to have clear goals.

Articulate goals in simple terms and repeated them often for your team and board. When you state your goals, remember to get to the point right away. Don’t bury the headline with a lot of history and preamble before you share the goal. Simple direct statements are most powerful.

We are all distracted, so having a clear outcome in mind and repeating it clearly and often helps cut through the clutter. It is a beacon in the fog of our daily email deluge.

This is not to say every goal should be quantified. Mark Twain also famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” While we don’t agree completely, high level qualitative goals are needed before creating more detailed quantitative ones. Otherwise, we get lost in a sea of numbers.

3. Nourish relationships as you would a prize rose garden

Keep a constant focus on the supporters who are most important to you. Building personal relationships takes some daring and risk-taking. It is complex work and easy to avoid. It is also one of the most important things you do.

Always drive towards meaningful interactions with these top funders. These interactions should deepen the relationship and bring supporters closer to your work on an emotional, personal, and intellectual level.

Relationship building is like gardening: you water every day, you weed, you keep at it. It never hurts to re-emphasize relationships, even if it is so basic.

If a project or task is not leading to a stronger personal donor relationship, then reevaluate. You may need to spend your time on more important work.

4. Build an organization of leaders

Fundraising is not like sales or any automated process that can be approached formulaically. It involves igniting donors’ passions and intellect around a cause. It can’t be delegated to development staff or a single passionate board member.

Top leaders – on both the staff and board side – must step up personally to commit the necessary time and effort to succeed. They must also consciously promote a culture of leadership in others. Great leaders create an organization with leaders at every level.

Any successful capital campaign starts with the CEO and the board chair personally engaging as fundraising leaders. This can include designating a set number of hours or percent of work time to fundraising activities. This must come before other major investments are made in the effort.

There are many critical strategies and tactics needed to build an excellent fundraising shop or launch a campaign. We can’t outline them all here, but we can say that a strong underlying culture, a directional focus towards a common goal, and a well-led donor-centered approach are essential. What did we miss? Do you have additional thoughts to share? Let me know at zack@essexdrake.com.

Your questions!

Q: Shouldn’t we start by doing a campaign feasibility study?
Essex & Drake offers studies as part of our suite of services, so our advice here is probably not selfserving.
However, studies can be useless if an organization is not ready to launch a campaign. These
three “must-haves” above should be in place before exploring your readiness for a campaign. If you are
on the path, or already are doing these three things, then by all means launch a study.

Q: Aren’t these too basic?
These may seem like basic ideas but getting the fundamentals right, or at least on the right path, before
launching a major effort will save time, money, and effort later. We have talked with many entities with
budgets over $10 million that have not established these principles and have paid a steep price. The goal
is sustainable and lasting change and it starts with the basics.

Q: I need concrete action plans. (Not a question, but we’ll respond anyway!)
Yes, this guide is at a strategic level and you will need to make a plan that is customized to your unique
set of circumstances.

This post is too brief to cover the details of such a plan, but in short, there are some basic steps you can
take to start implementing each of these ideas in ways that will get buy-in from board and staff alike and
foster real and lasting change. Q: We have these three strategies in place or in process. What do we do next?
You may consider a planning study to interview stakeholders in advance of a capital campaign. While
you plan your study, there are many important tactical steps to take to prepare for a campaign. These
include cleaning up your donor database, putting key processes in place, assessing your internal
resources, measuring the quality of your prospect pool, building a strong finance-development link, and
clarifying staff and board roles.

Q: We have these three strategies in place or in process. What do we do next?
You may consider a planning study to interview stakeholders in advance of a capital campaign. While
you plan your study, there are many important tactical steps to take to prepare for a campaign. These
include cleaning up your donor database, putting key processes in place, assessing your internal
resources, measuring the quality of your prospect pool, building a strong finance-development link, and
clarifying staff and board roles.

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