How “Campaign Ready” Are You?

April 2014 – Gonser Gerber Bulletin on Advancement for Schools

The word “campaign” is a funny one.  For some, it brings with it negative connotations from past experiences that were less than pleasing.  Perhaps a goal was not met.  Perhaps the staff became overwhelmed by the amount of additional work.  Or perhaps, the word “campaign” conjures up deep-seated insecurities around the pressures of meeting stretch goals.

For others, though, the word “campaign” invokes more positive feelings.  For instance, some people are energized at the prospects of a campaign.  Thinking and acting in ways that can move the institution to serve more and better is stimulating, and even career defining.  Or perhaps the prospects of a campaign is just what is needed to reinvigorate a leader who has found herself stuck in the proverbial rut of day-to-day routines.

Whether the idea of a campaign is depressing or encouraging (or somewhere in between), we must be careful not to make campaign decisions based on feelings alone.  Instead, there are cues and clues that, when explored thoughtfully and thoroughly, can give us a much clearer sense of how successful a proposed campaign might be.

In this edition of the first Gonser Gerber electronic Bulletin on Advancement, the concept of “Campaign Readiness” is explored.  Specifically, we provide you with 10 proven areas that will help you assess your institution’s campaign readiness.  The assessment of each of these areas should serve as a lens through which you will be able to more clearly understand your institution’s degree of campaign readiness.

The Meaning of “Campaign Readiness”

The term de jure when preparing for a campaign has been “feasibility.”  While this term has come to adopt different definitions over the years, the original intent of the word focused exclusively on assessing the amount of gift support that might be available to an institution considering a campaign.  In other words, “campaign feasibility” served as a testing of the external philanthropic marketplace and was specifically designed to answer the question, “Is there gift support sufficient to achieve our campaign dollar goals?”

The question of campaign feasibility is, of course, an important one.  Clearly, though, it isn’t the only one.  While some institutions still focus primarily on the question of campaign feasibility our firm’s experience has shown that it is just as important to focus on the question of campaign preparedness. 

Campaign preparedness asks a different question and the unit of analysis is different.  Instead of assessing the external environment like campaign feasibility does, questions of campaign preparedness looks within the institution and asks, “How well positioned is the institution to solicit, receive, and steward the gifts that will be given?”

Taken together, a focus on campaign feasibility and campaign preparedness provide a much more comprehensive and thorough assessment of campaign readiness.  It is to the issues of campaign readiness that we now turn. 

Campaign Readiness Matters:  Your 10 Most Important Concerns

Over decades of providing campaign counsel to charitable organizations and institutions of all types and sizes, we have found there to be a core set of issues that an institution needs to address prior to commencing with a campaign.  These issues are qualitative in nature and institutions should focus on assessing their relative strengths and weaknesses to create an impressionistic picture of campaign readiness.  After answering each issue thoroughly and earnestly, you should have a much better sense of the areas of your institution that need to be strengthened and those that are more fully “campaign ready.”

Readiness Concern 1:  The degree of authenticity, clarity, timeliness, and inspiration associated with your mission, vision, and values statements.

Your statements of mission, vision, and values should reflect the soul and aspirations of your institution.  Can members of your institution’s staff and volunteer teams articulate your mission quickly and clearly?  A well-crafted mission statement addresses your institution’s purpose and, as the “Stanford Social Innovation Review” suggests, can be 8-words or less.

Does your institutional vision for the future inspire those already connected to your institution and help you attract new donors and volunteers?  Your vision statement should clearly define the destination of your plans – a compelling future state your institution wants to achieve for the betterment of those you serve.

Your statement of values should communicate what you believe and how you strive to engage and work with others.  While no institution is perfect, your values should resonate with the ring of authenticity.  If an institution lists as a core value the notion of “transparency,” and, yet, their culture is one of secrecy, they should not be surprised when donors, volunteers, and potential employees are slow to partner with them.

Finally, these statements should provide a clear framework for helping to answer the important question, “Why are we attempting to raise significant gifts during this campaign?”  More often than not, a donor’s decision to make a significant campaign gift is driven more by the impact of that gift and less by the recognition or “benefits” they will receive from having made the gift.  Donors ask, “What will my gift do?”  Authentic, clear, timely, and inspiring statements of mission, vision, and values help answer that question and animate the giving impulse.

Readiness Concern 2:  The alignment between your proposed campaign initiatives and your strategic plan.

When institutions align their campaign funding priorities with a compelling strategic plan, they are answering the specific campaign question, “Why are we raising money for this project or that initiative and not another?”  The answer to this question becomes important because major gift donors want to be assured that the list of campaign priorities is not simply a laundry list of institutional needs.  Instead, donors want to see that the campaign priorities have been strategically chosen and offer the best possible path toward achieving the strategic plan goals and, ultimately, the mission and vision of the institution.

Readiness Concern 3:  The degree to which your major donors are strongly supportive of your institution.

Some time back, our firm conducted a Campaign Readiness Study in which one of the clear findings was that the behavior of the organization’s CEO had injured relationships with some of their most important major donors.  Because of this circumstance, these donors were not enthusiastic about supporting the organization with their best possible gifts and the organization was going to be hard-pressed to have campaign success.

Before moving ahead with a campaign, it is wise to check the pulse of your valued constituencies.  Do they feel good about the direction of the institution?  Are they more engaged or less engaged psychologically than they were a year ago?  Do they use the word “we” or “they” to describe the institution?  The answers to questions like these begin to give a sense of the perception of your institution.

Readiness Concern 4:  The success of your recent fundraising. 

While it is important to analyze all of your annual, planned, and major gift fundraising programs and clearly understand how effective those programs are, there are two specific questions an institution should ask when deciding how campaign-ready they might be.

First, what is the history of campaign success at your institution?  The non-profit landscape is full of institutions that publicly launched campaigns that did not meet their fundraising goal.  In those instances, it is not uncommon for the institution’s leaders to shy away from moving into a campaign again.  Sometimes a public campaign failure can inhibit decision-makers for years or even decades!  On the other hand, when an institution has a history of campaign success, the typical response to the idea of a new campaign is, “How quickly can we get going?”  The leaders and donors associated with institutions that have enjoyed campaign success are more eager to experience the good feelings of the campaign again.

The second question to ask about past fundraising success involves the number of leadership-level annual giving donors your institution has.  Specifically, if your institution has enjoyed a trend of an increasing number of annual leadership-level donors – say, at the $1,000 level – then campaign success is more likely to be in store.  The reason for this is because during the Public Phase of the campaign effort, smaller major gifts will need to be secured.  The pool of donors, who today are providing leadership-level annual gifts to your institution, will be the pool of donors from which those smaller (but important!) major gifts during the Public Phase will come.  Expanding this group of potential late campaign major gift donors is a key part of overall campaign success.

Readiness Concern 5:  The effectiveness of your marketing and communications efforts.

When properly implemented, campaigns should support and affirm the broader institutional brand.  In order to achieve this campaign marketing goal, your institution’s communications and marketing efforts must be well-organized, strategic, and integrated with the campaign.  The name of the campaign, the themes that support the campaign and, hopefully, inspire donors to be more generous, should reflect your overall institutional brand.

Additionally, while donors do not make decisions about their campaign giving based on the design excellence of campaign literature, the institution must have the capacity to produce the needed campaign collateral – both digital and hard-copy.  Effective communication and marketing efforts, in all forms, help to create the environment within which generosity is encouraged.

Readiness Concern 6:  The capacity of your advancement office.

The capacity of the advancement office to manage the internal operations of a major campaign is a critical area of examination for any institution considering a campaign effort.  While it is easy to think of this issue strictly in terms of the human resources needed to be successful in a campaign (i.e., do we have enough bodies to be out asking for campaign gifts?), there are at least three other important areas of advancement office capacity that are worth exploring.

First is the area of policies and procedures for the office.  Is there a governing board-approved policy on gift acceptance?  Who, ultimately, determines in your institution if a gift will be accepted?  And what types of gifts will be accepted?  Questions such as these can be critical during a campaign when, for example, a prospect talks with you about gifting your institution a parcel of land in Florida.

The second area of advancement office capacity worth exploring focuses on your institution’s ability to identify and research prospects, and manage known prospects and donors.  During a successful campaign, your institution will be making significant solicitations of your major donors during a compressed time period.  In this context, having a better understanding of donor financial capacity and interests, as well as being well-organized and strategic in the process of asking your major donors will be key.  Without question, one of the biggest complaints we hear from major donors is that the institution asks them too often for smaller gifts, instead of soliciting them once annually with a comprehensive package of gift options.

Finally, the third area of advancement office capacity worth exploring prior to a campaign is the donor relations function.  Specifically, how prepared is your institution to receive, thank, and recognize major donors?  Do you have naming opportunities prepared?  Is there a gift stewardship plan in place?  Are there staff members who are charged with ensuring that donors receive as much attention after the commitment has been made as they did during the cultivation process?  Successful campaigns help beget future successful campaigns.  And institutions that understand this, also recognize that the manner in which we steward today’s gift will help determine the size of tomorrow’s gift.

Readiness Concern 7:  The level of engagement of key volunteers.

The importance of volunteers during a successful campaign cannot be overstated.  In so many instances, having a volunteer open the door to a new prospect or involving a volunteer in a solicitation call, is the difference between success and disappointment.  Volunteers add a voice of authenticity to our campaign themes.  They affirm to other donors and prospects that our institution is worthy of support and they can encourage others to give at higher levels.

Engaging volunteers, though, much like cultivating major donors, does not occur overnight.  Assessing your institution’s experience with volunteer involvement is important.  Have we engaged our volunteers meaningfully in past campaigns and advancement efforts?  Have we provided them with specific responsibilities and supported them appropriately?  And, just as importantly, have we engaged as volunteers those individuals who bring sufficient influence and affluence?

Readiness Concern 8:  The commitment of your Board.

There is a saying that our firm often affirms for client institutions:  “No institution can be better than its board.”  The question for institutions considering a campaign is simply put, “Is our board ready to provide the requisite leadership to this campaign?”

Board campaign leadership primarily comes in two forms.  First, it comes through a process that ends with the board affirming that the campaign is not only something that the institution should do, but that the campaign is something that they own.  As the governing body of the institution, the corporate board must adopt a disposition of ownership with respect to the campaign.  Of course, they aren’t responsible for giving 100% of the goal.  But they are responsible for seeing that 100% of the goal is achieved.  Do members of your board talk about the campaign as “ours” or do they use “your campaign,” or “their campaign?”

Second, boards must provide philanthropic leadership to the campaign.  In almost every instance, campaign success starts at the top of the institution with board giving.  If the board is willing and able to commit to at least 20-25% of the total campaign goal, the institution is starting the campaign off in a strong position.

Readiness Concern 9:  The strength of the partnership between the advancement office and the Head/President.

The most important relationship in any campaign effort is the one enjoyed by the chief advancement officer and the Head/President.  Do these two individuals work well together?

Are they both fully committed to the campaign and willing and able to commit the time needed with donors and prospects to be successful?  If the relationship between these two positions is not strong, the campaign has little chance of being successful.

Readiness Concern 10:  The Philanthropic capacity of your donors and their interests.

The process of setting the dollar goal of your campaign must be informed by an understanding of the interest and financial capacity of your institution’s donors.  While your institution may have $500 million worth of needs, you will not raise that much money if the donors who are ready to be solicited, can give a total of $100 million.  Clearly understanding your donors’ interest, enthusiasm, and financial capacity helps to ensure that your campaign is feasible.

Conclusion

Campaigns are exciting times in the history of any institution.  They hold the promise of a brighter future and they energize people in new and important ways.  However, campaigns can also be formidable efforts that can cause considerable angst – among both staff members, as well as donors.

Assessing your institution across these 10 campaign readiness areas will help clarify how prepared and how feasible your campaign effort might be.  And, when you take the time to address each of these important campaign readiness areas, you will strengthen not only your chances for campaign success, you also will strengthen your overall advancement program.