12 Campaign Beliefs

We have learned a set of truths while working on capital campaigns.

We created our 12 Campaign Beliefs to document these truths. As we continue to help clients navigate the campaign process, especially during a challenging year, we are reminded of their relevance and importance.

The number of capital campaigns will increase exponentially as the country improves economically. If you serve on a board or work for a nonprofit, we offer these insights as part of your deliberation and decision-making process.

#1 Relationships are more important than money. Always.

Too often, we witness leaders make transactional decisions. Asking donors to pay pledges early, for instance, may help cash flow but it will cost you the trust and confidence of donors. Long-term thinking and long-term stewardship of relationships are always more important than a short-term gain to balance a budget or balance the checkbook.

#2 A case for support is never, ever, about a need for money. It’s always about impact and how the organization is meeting deep community needs.

In seminars that we host, we often ask the participants to take a pledge, with hand on heart, to never, ever, talk about a need for money as a case for support. Why are we so emphatic about this? Because it happens all too often, and when it does, it makes the ask transactional. Yes, cash flow challenges are real, but that’s an internal issue. Donors want to know about the impact being made and the need in the community being met. When we connect donors to impact and community need, we build relationships rooted in mission.

#3 Data drives strategy, planning, and decision making. Quantitative and qualitative data tells a story — your story. Organizations need to be intentional about data collection and analysis. The findings must be understood and shared widely.

Your impact must be measured, understood, and shared. When you are intentional about data collection and analysis, then you have the basis for which strategic decisions can be made. Questions to consider include: What programs should be expanded, created or abandoned? How much revenue can be forecasted next quarter? What staffing adjustments need to be made? How engaged are our donors? Are we meeting the needs of our customers? We promise, data is your friend.

#4 Donors should never feel like an ATM. Which is why donor acknowledgement (a meaningful, timely, and accurate thank you) and donor engagement (cultivation before an ask is made and stewardship after a check is written) is so critical.

Effective fundraising is relational, not transactional. When the cadence of donor communication is ask and thank, ask and thank, ask and thank, then the message conveyed is as transactional as an ATM. To fix the never-ending cycle of asking, create meaningful donor acknowledgement and engagement.

  • Write thank you letters that are heartfelt, timely, and accurate.
  • Build a cultivation plan for donor prospects to find out if their passion aligns with your mission, and if so, how they want to engage with you.
  • Design a stewardship program for current and former donors that focuses on the impact their support has had on your mission and on community need.

#5 Invest in human resources, not just bricks and mortar. Campaigns are complicated and exhausting. Hiring the right team, and supporting them with the right resources, is an expense that should neither be delayed (let’s wait until we open) nor minimized (they are used to wearing many hats). Support your volunteers, too.

Campaigns fund construction, equipment, programs, endowments, cash reserves, and a myriad of other critical improvements, but we contend campaigns should also include growth in human resource capacity. Use a campaign to promote talented staff, elevate potential leaders, fund robust professional development and training opportunities, increase salaries, and create new permanent and/or contingent positions. Support your most critical resource — your people — and resist the tired nonprofit sector orthodoxies such as “everyone here makes sacrifices.” When you invest in capacity building, your organization will be healthier.

#6 When doing the math, show your work. No flub numbers allowed. Crunching the numbers and documenting the assumptions embedded in the budget creates a road map that is easy to follow, readily adjustable, and fully transparent.

We are often surprised by budgets that were created based on estimates and hunches, or worse — goals and dreams. While they may have some basis in industry averages, they may not have any semblance of reality with an organization’s actual data. Our counsel to you is to crunch the numbers. Determine your donor retention rates, calculate average gift sizes, forecast probability rates for corporate and foundation grants, understand gala sales and sponsorship trends, and know how many potential donors are being cultivated and how many are projected to make gifts at which levels. When you do, you then have the ability to document all the assumptions used to build your budget.

#7 State the assumptions at the outset, then challenge them. Beyond the budget, what other assumptions are being made that impact the campaign’s success? How true do they remain today, and will they remain true tomorrow?

If your campaign is related to a new location, there may be untested assumptions about the location of your new building or the size. Are you making assumptions based on how previous campaigns were lead? Are you making assumptions about what your customers value, or have you asked them? What are you assuming the campaign should include?

An article that we share often with clients is called “Challenging the Orthodoxies of Philanthropy” by Gabriel Kasper and Jess Ausinheiler that was published in Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2015. The article reframes how to think about what we do and what we believe. We encourage you to read it and ask at your next board meeting, “What are we assuming and how can we test if assumptions or orthodoxies have merit?”

#8 Contingencies get spent. Prices go up. Delays happen. Leaders leave. Donors say “no.” Don’t dwell. Learn, acknowledge, and move on.

Moving on may be easier said than done because it’s hard when these things happen. We’re human and campaigns create all sorts of emotions. We get it, and we’ve lived it, but stay focused on your goal while you course correct. You and your organization will be stronger as a result, and when that happens, it’s a win instead of a loss.

#9 Courage and a tolerance for risk are essential. All campaigns are a leap of faith. How aligned are your board, campaign leadership, and CEO?

You may not think about risk tolerance when you are conducting a feasibility study or planning a campaign, but it’s a critical conversation to have in the board room, especially when a founder is leading the organization. Founders are entrepreneurial and may have used personal funds to launch the organization. While founders and others may be willing to go into debt, or bet the proverbial farm, others may not be willing to do so. Some board members may be willing to secure a mortgage, use a line of credit, or push the limit on the campaign goal, but others may view those decisions as putting the organization in a precarious position.

We invite you to talk about risk at a board meeting so that you understand all viewpoints. It’s far better to have this conversation in the abstract rather than at the end of the campaign when fatigue and frustration may be high.

#10 Build connections and allow for creativity. At all times, hear what’s being communicated — whether it’s your largest donor or the youth being served — and create the space to process and think so that messages are compelling and planning is responsive.

Too often, one-way conversations drive messaging — especially in campaigns. Examples include language such as, “Our vision is… Our new building will… Our team of experts plan… We are the best at… We will achieve…” But, if you pause long enough to ask some questions and truly listen to the answers, then you will co-create your vision, building, and program with your donors and customers. And when you do, it will be far better than if you had forged ahead alone.

#11 Someone or something will delight you, and, someone or something will disappoint you. It will happen. Celebrate the good and learn from the bad.

Campaigns will feel like a roller coaster at times, but if you have a long-term view and pay attention to the relationships involved, then you will weather the ups and downs. It’s a journey. Stay clear on the vision and focused on the goal. And, when the disappointments happen, feel it but don’t dwell in it. You will be stronger for it, and the campaign will be a success.

#12 Abundance can only be created in community. Isolation is often created by fear, and fear fuels the scarcity assumption that there is never enough. When we gather for the collective good, we open ourselves to new possibilities and create the very thing we seek — abundance.

We believe wholeheartedly in the mindset of abundance and in the power of gratitude. We have written several times about gratitude and we share the idea again because it’s far more productive to focus on possibilities, potential, and positivity. We are by no means minimizing the challenging financial status that many nonprofits face, especially over the last year, but shifting our mindset and creating community are essential for success.

It is an honor to advance our clients’ missions through the partnerships that Mollard Consulting creates with the people and organizations we serve. We hope the campaign beliefs shared this week and last have inspired you. We wish you abundance on your next campaign.

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