There are an infinite variety of not-for-profit organizations in the world. Every cause imaginable has seen a charity or foundation created by its advocates. As I talk to representatives from a wide slice of these groups, I am struck by the fact that their needs and goals are far more similar than dissimilar. Successful fund raising efforts have the same characteristics regardless.
One of the challenges I face is helping diverse organizations see the common ground their fundraising efforts share with other groups. A great way to bridge this gap is to examine issues from a context most people can share. Church campaigns are a great example. Every church executes a capital campaign at one time or another. A few lucky ones are continually moving from one campaign into another and are constantly growing as a result. Most fundraisers have spent some time on a church campaign, either through professional affiliation or because they were asked to help with their own church.
Church campaigns have some unique characteristics oriented around their size and their religious mission. Some churches are quite small, and so the solicitation activity might consist of only a hundred asks, including the lower level prospects. Others may be large in numbers but geographically compressed. In a city such as Chicago or New York there may be a single church whose entire membership of 1000 families lives within one square mile.
Membership in a church is a serious decision for most people and they will only join where they agree with the mission and how the ministry is pursued. As such, the members should already possess the characteristics of a good prospect: someone who is interested and invested in the life of an organization. Presumably, just by the act of attending services, a parishioner has been drawn into the church. They have been cultivated across a lifetime because this is an organization with which they interact on a weekly basis. For these reasons it is not necessary to spend so much time on cultivation or preparation.
Peoples’ predisposition to give to their church allows for a shorter, intensive campaign timeline. For example, a church that has 500 families actively involved and contributing might run a campaign with a timeline of five months. In a secular organization - or institutional campaign such as a college, museum, or hospital - where peoples’ involvement is more conditional and perhaps they are spread across a large area, a campaign to reach an equivalent prospect pool might last eighteen months or more.
Church campaigns succeed in part by having the presumed compliance of the members (they belong to the church) and then gaining their specific agreement for the project. This is often accomplished by a town hall meeting, giving everyone an opportunity for direct feedback. There will never be unanimity on the details, but most people feel very positive about seeing their church grow. There is a threshold at which the energy of the proponents will lend the project a sense of inevitability and momentum.
Once there is general compliance from the church members about the goals of the campaign, it becomes an effort to solicit everyone as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, it is at this point that a lot of churches go astray. Many churches think that, because people are committed and faithful, they can take a very soft approach to asking for the money and people will self-motivate themselves to do their best. It is not enough to have supportive members who agree with the project. The church must still use the most powerful fundraising techniques available. That means four things: phases of activity with the most capable people asked first; personal solicitations; specific, proportionate, meaningful requests for all prospects; and multi-year pledges.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a church campaign is ranking the prospects with the most capable families at the top. It is difficult for people to think of their fellow parishioners, who are often close friends, in such terms. There is also the stigma that churches are not supposed to push people financially. But how else are churches supposed to achieve dynamic growth, if not through serious fundraising? When wealthy people are asked why they direct their largest gifts to their alma mater or community organizations rather then their church, they invariably respond, “Because my church never asked me for such a gift.”
Whether your church campaign is large or small, you begin by asking the most capable prospects first. The initial solicitations must be of those people most likely to respond favorably at the uppermost levels. This raises everyone’s sights and builds strong momentum to carry the campaign forward. It sets the bar very high for future gifts.
Significant giving, and certainly sacrificial giving, only results from a personal solicitation by people who share a meaningful relationship with the prospect. There is nothing more powerful than having the pastor and another donor sit down with a husband and wife and explain how their gift will make a difference. The same principle applies if the leader is the CEO of a hospital or the executive director of a local charity. These are the tactics of any successful fundraising endeavor.
Successful campaigns also employ multi-year pledges. I always recommend that a group ask for donations to be spread over five years. The simple truth is that an organization will raise more money with that approach than they will by asking for three-year pledges or one-time gifts. People relate best to how much they can give on an annual basis. Asking for a gift spread over a longer period enables the donor to contribute more. Once a church has begun employing these proven techniques, the campaign becomes a function of seeing everyone as quickly as possible.
What distinguishes church campaigns from others is the clearly defined constituency. In a church campaign the prospect list is essentially the membership roster and everyone probably lives within 20 miles of the church. This allows you to start almost immediately and work faster. Regardless, all successful campaigns share the hallmarks of involving as many people as possible with a personal solicitation, asking for sacrificial gifts, and maintaining a phased approach to build positive momentum.
In campaigns for secular institutions, a great deal of effort goes into uncovering prospects that may not be obvious from the start. Because it is so much more difficult in those campaigns to determine exactly who the prospects are, as well as what sort of gift they might make, it is very important to begin with a thorough feasibility and planning study. Institutional campaigns occur across longer timelines, and they may actually consist of several parallel campaigns within different constituencies.
When churches use the same sophisticated fundraising methods that other charitable organizations (hospitals, schools, cultural organizations) have employed for years, they see remarkably similar results. There is no substitute, at any level, for friends talking with friends, face-to-face and in specific terms, and culminating in an impassioned request for support. For a church, the results are often amplified because people invariably reserve their greatest charitable intent for their religious home.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.