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Capitalize on Your Capital Campaign Planning

by Kelly McCormack

Here at MANP, our Help Desk receives several calls each day with inquiries related to nonprofit management including financial management, human resources, governance, and the ever-important, fundraising. Recently, we’ve gotten a lot of questions around planning for capital campaigns, so we reached out to a couple of Friends, with decades of expertise between them, to get their perspectives on some of our most-asked questions.

Lisa Jepson Wahlstrom, CFRE
Ovation Fundraising Counsel

Laird Yock
Philanthropy Works

How do we assess our readiness for a capital campaign?

LJW: There are several key indicators that can help an organization assess their readiness for a capital campaign. I think the most important indicators are:

  1. Strong leadership – Having a dynamic, well-respected and hardworking Campaign Chair is key to your success and makes the hard work of a campaign much easier. I’ve see campaigns that don’t have the strongest Campaign Chair succeed, but it takes a lot longer and is not as much fun. Strong leadership also includes having a Campaign Committee that is energized and ready to help make the campaign a success, an Executive Director/CEO that is invested in the hard work of a campaign, and support from the Board of Directors. The expertise and guidance from a campaign consultant can also strengthen your leadership team.
  2. A compelling case for support – Whether your case for support is in the form of a brochure or a video or both, it needs to describe how the campaign is going to address a real community need and how the donor and the community will benefit from a successful campaign. The case for support needs to relay a sense of urgency and be a call to action!
  3. Qualified leadership gift donors – Ideally, you will be able to identify a number of qualified potential donors that will lead to 10 leadership gifts that total 40%-50% of your campaign goal, as well as many additional major gift donors.

Conducting a feasibility study is one way to test for these three key indicators and for other important factors that will influence the outcome of your campaign.

LY: The good news is your organization can do considerable work determining your readiness for a campaign by expending energy instead of money. The two most important questions to answer before any other considerations are: 1) does our board understand the effort a campaign demands required by both themselves and staff, and 2) Do you have the necessary systems and procedures in place in development to manage a fast-paced complex effort?

Your board should understand a typical campaign is a 3 to 5 year effort that will require their time from beginning to end, and they need to be willing to commit to expending resources for some period of time before the campaign will generate revenue. It’s also important to note that they will each be expected to make a ‘stretch’ gift for the campaign. Make sure your staff is adequately sized and trained to launch and sustain the effort. Your database should be adequate for proper gift tracking and administration, as well as having the necessary policies (gift acceptance, campaign counting, recognition, etc.) approved and in place. When you have positive answers to all the above, and more, you are ready to consider a feasibility study.

How do we write a good capital campaign case statement?

LJW: I think the best case statement is concise, visually-pleasing and easy to read, has a great opening that makes the reader want to continue reading and learn more, and evokes a sense of urgency. Include high-quality photos, great graphics, and plenty of white space in your case statement. Have the best writer in your development office create a draft and then test the draft. Ask your board members to read it. Test it with feasibility study participants, including potential leadership donors. Do they find it compelling? It can be helpful to read case statements from other organizations that have successfully completed a campaign and identify what makes theirs a strong case for support.

LY: What percentage of prospective donors read a case statement? My experience says that if more than 25% of the donor constituency reads the document, you have a highly committed donor pool. The primary benefit of writing a case statement is to help guide what happens internally at the organization. A strong case statement should be brief, and to get it to be concise requires focus and prioritization by both staff and volunteers. The development of the case statement should be taken on by senior leadership and should not involve more than 6 to 7 people. And it’s important to keep in mind the case cannot be completed until the feasibility study is presented and information learned from the study informs the final case document.

What are the pitfalls to watch out for with a capital campaign (or any major fundraising campaign)?

LJW: I think the biggest “pitfall” is to underestimate what it takes to run a successful campaign. It takes longer than you might imagine to plan and adequately prepare for a capital campaign. Campaigns also require a significant budget (ever heard that ‘it takes money to raise money’?) and a great investment of time and energy from staff and volunteers. Organizations sometimes underestimate the number of potential donors that need to be identified in order to secure the number of gifts needed to reach the campaign goal.

A few tips:

  • Do start early with research and planning for your campaign
  • Don’t embark on a campaign without a comprehensive plan
  • Do secure your largest gifts first
  • Don’t believe that you can reach the campaign goal through holding events
  • Do plan and budget for donor recognition in the earliest phase of your campaign
  • Don’t expect your campaign consultant to raise the money for your campaign
  • Do be donor-focused in your engagement, stewardship and solicitation of donors
  • Don’t forget to celebrate successes along the way!

LY: In a very broad sense, some of the pitfalls to look out for are:

  • Volunteers not realizing how much effort they must expend to assure a successful campaign.
    • To overcome the pitfall: Find volunteers who have taken part of a successful campaign at another organization.
  • Leadership and staff transition over the course of the effort:
    • To overcome: Set clear expectations at the start of the project to specifically cover roles and responsibilities of everyone involved.
    • To overcome: Consider creating co-roles, i.e. co-chairs of the campaign with one chair taking the lead for the first half of the campaign and the other for the second half, although they would be co-chairs throughout the entire project.
  • Understand that there will be a time during the campaign when the effort hits the doldrums
    • To overcome: Don’t expect to avoid it, just know it will happen and when it does, you will work your way out of it!

What should we look for when hiring a campaign consultant?

LJW: When hiring a campaign consultant, quite honestly, the best fit for you and your organization often comes down to personality. I think the best consultant will have experience leading capital campaigns, lots of energy, have strong time management and volunteer management skills, be a good teacher and teammate, and be willing to be the “bad guy” when necessary to make the tough decisions and to nudge staff and volunteers to keep the campaign moving forward. The consultant might be a solo practitioner or be part of a large firm. You will definitely want to check references and speak with others who have worked with the consultant.

Personally, I prefer to have a telephone conversation with a prospective client as a first step, rather than simply responding to an RFP. A conversation is an opportunity for a consultant to learn something about the organization and the proposed project in advance of submitting a proposal and is a good initial screening step for the organization. After the initial screening, inviting your top choices to a face-to-face meeting with your selection committee is a good idea. If you interview someone from a firm that employs multiple consultants, make sure you know who will be assigned to work on your campaign and that you have a chance to meet and interview that person.

LY: Considering outside counsel for your campaign should be divided into two sections. It is best practice to hire counsel to conduct the feasibility study and then do a new search for counsel to support the actual campaign. Counsel to conduct a feasibility study is money well spent, but engaging counsel to support the actual campaign is less clear. A feasibility study will provide your organization with information you do not have and information that cannot be gotten in any other way. Counsel during the campaign depends on previous campaign experience and the strength to the organization’s to direct all involved constituencies.
Look for counsel that has demonstrated experience in organizations as similar to yours in size and scope as possible. Be certain the firm is responding to the requirements of your RFP and that they are not providing you with a formulaic response. Interview the exact individuals the consulting company is presenting to work with you. Expect the consulting company to require you to meet deadlines in the same way you will expect them to meet your deadlines.

For more information about Capital Campaigns, you are welcome to reach out to Lisa and/or Laird whose information can be found in their Yellow Pages listings.

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