Many people, including some of the “experts,” subscribe to the theory that all the stars have to be aligned just right to conduct a successful capital campaign. I have directed literally hundreds of successful capital campaigns throughout the last 20 years, and I can tell you that "theory" is a bunch of bologna.
People have different perceptions about capital campaigns, and some people understand how very important they can be in the life of the non-profit organization. Many people, especially those without much campaign experience, view the capital campaign as a mysterious process. They tend to view it with fear and trepidation, rather than with the genuine enthusiasm and excitement this opportunity ought to engender.
The rumor mill has conjured up the wrong ideas in the heads of all but the most experienced development officers. People believe that there are many reasons why they (the charitable organization they represent) are not ready to consider doing a capital campaign: they have a weak board, they are in transition, the executive director just came (or will be leaving soon), they are a new organization, they don’t have rich board members, the case is not quite polished yet, they need to cultivate prospects first, they need to mature the annual giving program before they can think in terms of a capital campaign.
To all these people, I say Hogwash! This is just a list of excuses. Any organization with a shred of purpose or integrity of mission is going to be thinking about where they want to go (their case for support), and how are they going to get there (cash to pay for it—a capital campaign). Which quality hospital, university, prep school, church, social service agency or cultural institution of merit is not now having, or soon planning, a capital campaign? They all are! Among the most successful and multi-dimensional institutions you will find, if they are finishing one campaign now, they are well into the planning process for the next one.
It would be nice to have an ideal case—a case that is not only defensible but also marketable and attractive—a sexy case. It would be ideal to have the most socially prominent and successful business people in town as your board members and campaign committee. It would be delightful to have a battalion of the most intelligent and articulate community leaders as your volunteer solicitors and it would be nice if your organization’s management team were the envy of everyone else. But, face it folks, most of us are not going to enjoy such unlikely circumstances. Are we going to let that keep us home from the big dance? I do not think so.
My advice to any institution is this: There is a way to create a strategic plan that will enable you and your organization to reach much greater heights through a process of dreaming, goal setting and working together to meet these goals. This is what the capital campaign process is all about. A capital campaign strengthens an organization by focusing its collective (board, management, volunteers and staff) attention on the objectives that are important, and demanding the very best effort from each person involved, until together, they accomplish those objectives. A successful campaign, while it cannot demand the bulk of leadership’s time, must be seen by your organization as a primary institutional priority.
The capital campaign experience completes the fundraising process, like sports and other extracurricular activities completes a child’s education. You cannot withhold a child from playing on the football/baseball/basketball team because he might not be the star, or he may sit on the bench. You let him participate so that he learns to do the best he can with the skills he has—you let him play so he can learn to compensate for some of the things he doesn’t have, like being a gifted athlete. So it is with a weak or struggling organization—if you cannot dream of tomorrow and work together to build it today, you may as well shut your doors. A capital campaign, like boot camp for the soldier, teaches people to improvise and work together to overcome challenges.
A capital campaign is truly a cataclysmic event. It has a polarizing effect upon all your constituents. It has a way of making people decide if the organization really matters to them and, if so, it inspires them to come forward to help. Contrariwise, it will cause disinterested people, who cause more problems and difficulties by their presence, to count the costs associated with membership and to leave. Deadwood (unproductive people) runs from a capital campaign like cockroaches scurry off when you turn on the lights. The commitment and demands you place on each member of an organization during a well-run capital campaign will cause them either to “stand and deliver,” or it will make them “turn and run.”
While there are a few circumstances under which I would advise your organization to wait before beginning an important campaign, I would never advise a very long wait. Even if a short wait is advisable, you should be up and running within a year. To wait any longer is counter-productive. Besides, one of the most effective ways to fight a controversy or a negative public perception is through a major marketing and educational thrust like the one that accompanies any well-designed capital campaign.
No matter the age, size or strength of your non-profit organization, you can carefully craft a development plan that includes a successful capital campaign. I would advise you to seek the advice of fundraising counsel and to engage them to do a campaign feasibility and planning study to help you determine your strengths and weaknesses, to assess your leadership and proposed timing for the campaign and to help you set a campaign goal that is at once challenging and achievable.
Remember, capital campaigns are exciting opportunities to let potential donors see what a tremendous opportunity they have to make a difference in the lives of real people. If you are not out there telling potential donors your story and asking for their financial support, someone else will be. Be sure you are ready to take advantage of your opportunities by planning your capital campaign now.
On a related point, many non-profits retain our firm to help plan and direct their capital campaigns. Often, when we arrive to begin our work with them, they say “we are working hard to get some more board members for the campaign.” They are out there just hustling people onboard in the hopes that numbers will help. Many people do not know much about the organization and almost none have been told about any financial obligations or fundraising responsibility.
I always explain, “You will be much better off to go through the campaign process, assess who contributes their time and their money more generously. After this period of observation and discovery, you can decide who the best new board members should be from among the new leaders and donors we uncover during the campaign.” Otherwise, you are just putting people on the board with little or no fundraising expectations or responsibilities and they are going to under-achieve.
David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS). 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 directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.