A Good Rule about Rules

Posted by admin on Aug 10, 2018 11:22:35 AM

The fundraising industry has a lot of ‘rules of thumb’ that we, as development professionals, apply to the situations we encounter. There are “the Six Steps of an Effective Solicitation,” and “the Five P’s of Leadership,” and, of course, “the Rule of Thirds.” There is probably a societal influence toward creating these rules, as we live in a ‘soundbite’ world. We like everything to fit into neat, thirty-second lessons so we can absorb a universal truth and move on.

Our industry also lends itself to the creation of these broad rules. Fundraising is tremendously complex. If we can resolve some issues in broad strokes, by applying one of these rules, then we can move more quickly through the mountain of work. What we have to avoid is leaning too heavily on these rules in an effort to make a difficult job easy. That is not going to happen.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘rule of thumb’ as a “roughly practical method.” That is how we should use these rules; not as absolute standards but as fair indicators of what we might expect. Carving these rules in stone and applying them to every situation can set us on the path to mediocrity, if not failure. These rules work best when applied to a broad sampling. When dealing with specific tasks or solicitations, however, it is best to examine each individually and apply our own judgment rather than a rule of thumb.

One of the most widely cited rules in fundraising is the Rule of Thirds. It is applied in a number of scenarios. The broadest application is to say that you will raise about one-third of the amount of money you request. This is often true, when a large sample is taken across a major campaign. Of course, specific results will vary, but this is a conservative estimate that allows you to design the necessary pace of activity to help you reach a particular goal.

The more focused the effort, though, the less applicable this rule becomes. Consider this example. You are leading a capital campaign to raise $3 million. You feel that you need at least one lead pledge of $500,000. You have three viable prospects for this level of commitment. This is a good starting point, since another application of the Rule of Thirds is that one out of every three prospects will give you the amount you requested. Again, as a “roughly practical method” it directs you toward having a number of prospects for every necessary gift. Overall, that is a sound strategy.

If we have three prospects for the lead pledge of $500,000, then our cumulative solicitations for that group will be $1.5 million. Applying the Rule of Thirds tells us that if we raise $500,000 from that group, we will be doing well. And therein lies the trap. We do not need those three donors to combine for $500,000. We need one of those three to give the amount requested. If we get one to do that, then the other two can offer smaller pledges without necessarily endangering the campaign’s overall success.

Since we do not know which of the three might contribute the entire amount requested, we must approach each of the three solicitations with an attitude of accepting nothing less than the $500,000 in our proposal. There is no fallback position. We cannot rely on the Rule of Thirds—a standard best applied to broader appeals to previous donors—to save us. This is an important distinction as we are preparing our volunteers and staff to conduct the solicitation.

The true standard for this situation is to look at each prospect individually. Which of them is most capable of considering such a pledge? Which of them is perhaps most inclined to make such a pledge, out of a love of the organization? At what point in this particular solicitation do we want to fall back to a compromise position, say $250,000? Or do we need to stick to our guns and stay at $500,000 until the bitter end, perhaps even deferring a smaller pledge?

Imagine that we went on the first two of these three solicitations, and each of those donors pledged $250,000, half of what was asked. According to the Rule of Thirds, we should be on Easy Street. We already have the $500,000 cumulative and the last prospect could give nothing without throwing us off. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth! Certainly there has been some strong success, since a $3 million campaign needs pledges of $250,000 as well. But we still need that lead gift of $500,000. Now we have one prospect for that one gift. That is a very high-pressure situation. If we get that gift, we are well on our way to success, with the top three pledges on our gift table closed. If we do not, we have squandered our best prospects and our overall campaign is in jeopardy.

They say you should live every day as if it were your last. The same applies to major gift fundraising, where we should solicit every prospect as if they are the only one we have. The Rule of Thirds, and other rough methods, is helpful when looking at the big picture, particularly in a mass appeal. However, when it comes down to a small number of critical prospects, there is no substitute for treating each request as a mini-campaign unto itself. We must convince ourselves, and those around us, that nothing less than 100% will do from each and every one of our supporters. That is the surest rule to live by.


Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: capital campaign fundraising, Capital Campaigns, Fundraising Principles, rule of thirds, rules of thumb

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