My mother carefully explained to me that I could be anything I wanted to be. She would say, “if you are going to achieve anything worthwhile in this world, you must first believe that you can.”
I travel America working with non-profits of all sizes, missions and in all stages of development. One of my biggest challenges is helping them build sufficient fundraising self-respect. In other words, we often have to help them see that they, too, can run a successful capital campaign.
My favorite children’s story is the little engine that “thought it could.” My Mamma taught me that story. It brings tears to my eyes to this day. My mother carefully explained to me that I could be anything I wanted to be. She would say, “if you are going to achieve anything worthwhile in this world, you must first believe that you can.” When asked why he was such a spectacular success as a professional football player, Brett Farve, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers simply said, “You have to believe that you are great!”
The very definition of success in a capital campaign is that you reach or exceed your goals, financially and otherwise. It is, therefore, essential for any organization to believe they are going to succeed before they begin. Absent that self-confidence, board members, management and volunteers will not have the needed focus, energy or staying power to ensure that your goals are achieved.
This essential belief in your organization’s ability to achieve is absent in many non-profit organizations. In fact, most charitable organizations struggle financially and begin to believe that this instability is the “normal state of affairs” for their non-profit. Board members and top management begin to believe it is because they have a weak board consisting of workers, not fundraisers. Board members may begin to feel that, since they cannot afford to pay sizeable salaries, they are destined to have an inexperienced management team—managers who depart when they can command a more responsible position, offering a larger salary and better benefits.
Such feelings lead an organization to a sense of helplessness if not hopelessness. This naturally promotes behavior that is exhibited by a person (or an organization) with low self-esteem. Such behavior involves lots of planning (to avoid action), much emphasis being placed upon recruiting a better board and more sophisticated staff (rather than trying to accomplish what you can with what you have) and generally waiting for the perfect opportunity to move forward with an important project such as a capital campaign. A mentality develops wherein the constant rejoinder is, “we cannot possibly run a campaign in the next year or two; we are not adequately prepared to succeed.”
These emotions and the self-defeating behaviors they may cause are exacerbated by mythical wisdom circulating in the non-profit community. Oftentimes, these insecure board members, managers, and volunteers try to learn more about how to create a successful capital campaign by attending a seminar and/or reading a book on campaigns. Too frequently, the “authorities” focus blindly upon the ideal set of circumstances in which to enjoy success.
Often, these fundraising academics (many of whom have never run a successful campaign themselves) indicate that you must have the perfect chairperson (hugely affluent and influential—who will commit a lead gift), you must have a strong wealthy board (from whom large lead gifts will flow), you must have that million dollar donor (or several, depending upon the size of your campaign) identified and committed, and all the stars must be properly aligned etc. etc. They do not usually outline what to do in less than ideal situations. By insinuating that organizations need an ideal set of circumstances before they begin, we see many organizations postponing their campaigns indefinitely, if not permanently.
Having worked with literally thousands of non-profit organizations, I can tell you that feelings of powerlessness and anguish about your capabilities and those of your organization are not the stuff from which fundraising wars are won. You must feel good about the goals of your organization and your role within that organization. How, you might ask, can we accomplish that?
The first step in any metamorphosis is to realize and accept that victory is a journey, rather than an event somewhere in time. To change the nature of the results the organization has experienced in the past, we have to change not only the behavior that led to those results, but we have to change the underlying attitudes that promote that behavior, as well. We have to re-program a group that has grown far too accustomed to losing, into a group that has every expectation of winning.
This “attitude adjustment” is best accomplished though a careful process of education into the fundamentals of which behaviors must change, in what ways, and what benefits that will accrue to the organization because of those changes. If this can be clearly demonstrated, and if you can get the leaders within an organization to “buy into” the theory and philosophy of what you are doing and why, then you are on the road to transformational changes in the corporate identity of your organization. The “winning” attitude is the energy flowing freely from this type of synergistic collaboration.
To realize success, you must identify your relative potential, develop a plan to reach that potential, and then focus like a laser on achieving that goal. This goal must become the primary institutional priority, with everyone working toward the same objective. The variable in this equation is the fundraising potential of your organization.
It is crucial that your organization assess its fundraising potential, in view of your needs and objectives, so that an appropriate financial goal can be set. In this way, you can determine which projects will receive priority funding, and which projects may have to wait for funding to materialize. This basic assessment of your fundraising potential in view of your needs and objectives is essential.
It may help your organization to retain professional help in assessing your fundraising potential. Our firm performs this service regularly for our clients through a comprehensive process called a campaign feasibility and planning study. We help our clients determine a goal that is both challenging and attainable—it must be both. One, without the other, is not in your organization’s best interest. A challenging, yet unattainable goal would spell disaster for morale, while an attainable goal that did not require your best effort would not allow you to reach your potential.
Every organization can learn to succeed on some level, just as every child can learn to achieve on some level. The healthiest, most dynamic organizations are always “on the grow.” They are constantly working hard to plan a campaign, complete a campaign and begin preparations for the next campaign. Why? Because they enjoy wonderful ideas and these ideas lead to lofty goals. And, it takes lots of money to realize these goals.
Campaigns require an organization to sharpen and articulate its vision. Further, campaigns require that you ask people for their help. People are excited by this vision, and they are attracted to the organization. They become part of the organization’s community or family, giving as they can of their time and money. Often it is the newer members of the family who are most zealous in their fundraising and leadership responsibilities.
Remember, you and your organization can do a worthwhile job with a capital campaign. It may be smaller than what you would do if you had ideal conditions, but it can be a positive, uplifting experience. If the campaign is handled properly, your organization will be much better for it, and much more sophisticated from a fundraising standpoint. After all, if you don’t solicit those gifts, someone else will solicit them for their organization. Are you going to let someone else budget and spend your money?
David G. Phillips is president of Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS). CDS has become one of North America's best and 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 800-761-3833 or send an email to email@example.com.