Most of Custom Development Solution's work revolves around the planning and resident direction of capital campaigns, which is a very intensive hands-on service. Frequently the first step I take with a potential client is to sit and listen to them describe their organization from their history and origins to their vision for the future and their goals and objectives.
Interestingly, their stories are often similar. They need the funds that a capital campaign would bring, but they are not quite "ready" to undertake such a monumental task. They will be ready in several months, or maybe in a year. Unfortunately, if you touch base with most of these organizations in a year, they are still not ready for the big step, they are working to get ready and it will probably be a couple more months. They are, as we say, "always getting ready to get ready."
These are, mind you, very industrious and keenly intelligent people. For many years, they have been attending educational seminars and conferences on fundraising, led by well-meaning instructors trying to pass along a massive amount of information in a very brief time frame. These non-profit administrators are working hard to learn as much as they can about the right way to fundraise, and the value of the major gift and how to plan and administer a successful capital campaign. Unfortunately, they are getting some misinformation, or at least some information that is hazardous to the financial health of the organizations they represent.
Fear of fundraising is just as dreadful as fear of dying or fear of snakes. In surveys of "most dreadful experiences," fundraising ranks right up there with death and public speaking as one of the three most horrifying events. After years of watching it from a distance, and having attended enough "empowerment" seminars, you can understand why a capital campaign enjoys a certain amount of mystique. Even seasoned veterans do not rush into a capital campaign.
The biggest problem is that non-profit executives who have never had a campaign experience are shown a snapshot of the ideal scenario when in fact, back in Peoria or Boise, they face the real world situation, which is much different. They are taught using the model that was used at Harvard University, Stanford University, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Smithsonian Institution, The San Francisco Opera and The Metropolitan Opera. In short, these organizations can marshal the resources without working up a sweat, as they have a history of educating and cultivating their constituents for large gifts.
The fundamental fundraising principles used by these powerful organizations hold true in any well-run major gifts campaign, based upon a classical fundraising model. The problem arises when the instructor leaves out the most important point: "this is an example of the best case scenario" most of you will not have a fairy tale situation when you return to your office. Do not let that distract you from your work, labor on for your reward!
As you might expect, these non-profit executives are told that they need strong, well-connected board members who are anxious to offer leadership through sacrificial giving and by soliciting their many influential friends on behalf of the agency. You need 100% participation and board members should be giving the very largest gifts you expect to receive. What these executives face when they get home is a lackluster board, with more well-intentioned people than wealthy tycoons. Many times, these folks have little or no history of giving, because it was not asked or expected of them in the past.
The executive often remarks that, "I have a number of board seats available, and I am going to recruit some influential corporate types before we start our campaign." The problem here is that the money invariably does not come from corporations. Most money comes from individuals who learn to care about your mission and begin to adopt it as their own.
By precipitously adding half a dozen board members in the months leading up to a campaign, you weaken your position. Can you imagine asking them for $25,000, $50,000 or even a $100,000 gift to your campaign, on the heels of their being recruited for your board? I see resignation all over those tarot cards. Any potential board member worth having in your organization will ask you what, exactly, is expected of them as a board member when they are thinking about their involvement. Not to tell them honestly would be a serious breach of trust. And if you get into a conversation about a gift at that point, before you are properly prepared to solicit such a contribution, you open a Pandora's box that cannot be closed graciously.
What is the solution? Run your capital campaign now. Ask these potential board members to help in a significant way both through their own generous gift and by leveraging their personal relationships. See who performs admirably, and to those enthusiastic, generous and indefatigable people go the invitations to join the stronger board for the "new and improved" organization. If they are going to help, this is the proving ground. And if they are not going to be helpful, it is better to know now, when your investment of time and energy is minimal. If you try to "sneak" them onto the board before your campaign, you are immediately behind the 8-ball. What better way to see who performs, than to see who helps you with the most difficult task of all: your capital campaign.
A capital campaign is one of the most polarizing experiences in the life of any organization. Your real supporters will stand up and deliver, and the pretenders will scatter like cockroaches when you turn on the light in a dark room. People who have something to give will become energized; folks who were there simply to "network" and to socialize will disappear faster than you ever thought possible. Invite the "givers" onto the board - the takers will be long gone by that time.
Another half-truth (or fallacy) that many non-profit executives learn is that "you must have a million dollar gift." Or, "you must have a donor who is willing to give between 20 and 40 percent of the goal." You need this "Lead Gift" or you are not going to be successful. Bunk! Four $250,000 cornerstone gifts, pledged over five years, are every bit as exciting a start for a small or mid-size charity as a million dollar gift. The key is to maintain your appropriate ratio of Leadership Gifts and Major Gifts to prospect pool. In most Major Gift Campaigns, about 80% of the money comes from 20% of the prospects.
At some point, sooner rather than later, you have to break out of the preparedness cycle and dive into the active phase of a campaign. For most organizations, there will never be a "perfect" time when you have every piece of the puzzle. Do not let that dissuade you. Not every organization is a Harvard, but that is OK. There are plenty of small to mid-size non-profits that run hugely successful campaigns. You should not expect your campaign to be a cure-all that will catapult your organization into the development stratosphere. You should expect it to be the next step in the strategic growth of your mission and a logical phase in the maturing of your development program. As they say, there is no time like the present. Just as with a child on the athletic field, or in the spelling bee, your satisfaction should be in knowing that you achieved the greatest possible result given your current resources. Not every child will score the winning run, or win the spelling bee, but everyone can compete. Win or lose, every person has an opportunity to do his or her personal best. Take that experience and grow from there; and remember - have some fun while you are at it!
David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS), one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms and 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.