Getting a Campaign Started: The Importance of Leadership Gifts

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Obtaining the first leadership gifts that initiate and “set the pace” are the key to every successful fundraising campaign. Making that happen involves a set of steps and requires special attention to context, strategic preparation, and careful execution.

Prospective donors to every campaign have highly individualized notions of why they might consider a significant gift and we readily acknowledge that the professional and volunteer leadership’s task is to guide each prospective lead donor toward the synergies between the vision for the campaign and his or her interest and goals. On that basis, leaders encourage other donors to give at their maximum capacity, but this first step … obtaining the first gifts often impacts on the direction for rest of a campaign.

To be a successful campaign leader, members of that elite volunteer team must also be substantial and capability donors. Remember, campaign stewardship is a job that demands every volunteer’s personal dedication to the vision and purpose of the organization. That starts with every campaign leader “having skin in the game,” that they must be committed financially. Campaign leaders must have the ability to speak from their own experiences and use their own generosity to encourage others to step forward generously. This begins with campaign leaders making their own capability gifts to the campaign, enabling them to make the compelling argument to the lead or major donor to “join me.”

So how are those first crucial campaign commitments obtained? Before any conversations begin about financial support, the organization must prepare a detailed and assertive campaign plan that determines the important steps and initiatives of the effort. The “first task” of obtaining initial and lead gifts then typically falls to the organization’s executive and campaign leaders to raise the subject as the campaign planning gets underway.

All too often, staff leaders of nonprofits become reluctant to approach their campaign leaders and broach the notion of lead and major giving. Fear often strikes them, so they try to cultivate at an arm’s length with the rationalization that the campaign leaders are already “giving so much time” and they don’t want to “offend” or “bother” them by asking for financial gifts, and that the “gifts will come.” Our advice: put these thoughts aside!

When campaign leaders are recruited, the commitment to personal capability giving must be part of the “deal.” They must agree to it in order to take on the role. While professional staff should always show respect for campaign leaders and not take advantage of their time commitment, they must make the discussion about a leadership gift an early step in the campaign. Note: remember the synergies mentioned above … campaign leaders take on leadership roles in every visible public campaign for their own reasons as well. Their activity must be played out on terms that benefit both sides. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes!

Every new campaign faces the same set of critical questions: who makes the first commitments, and when, and how will this set the pace for the balance of a campaign? When recruiting campaign leaders, we ask them to step forward with a personal commitment to lead in all ways, with the “three ‘W’s” – Wealth, Wisdom, and Work. Achieving this as a central purpose of every campaign’s quiet phase will enhance the potential for campaign success.

Absent their own gift, or a gift at what their peers may see as reflecting capacity, it will be far more difficult, in some cases impossible, for campaign leaders to ask others to make leadership gifts as well. Leaders lead and followers follow.

For example: several years ago, we managed a major capital and endowment campaign for a large Reform congregation. The campaign’s chair had indicated prior to the beginning of the campaign that he and his wife would make a modest six-figure gift. However, we encouraged the senior rabbi to discuss a transformational seven-figure gift that would set the pace for the campaign to follow. During the private discussions with the donor, the rabbi laid out the potential impact that a $1 million gift would have in the minds and hearts of others in the congregation.

While the campaign chair did not agree immediately, he and his wife ultimately made a million dollar commitment that became the first of other major gifts the couple made … both to the congregation and to other organizations in the local Jewish community. The rabbi’s words served to open the donors’ eyes to the power of their impact and capacity, and the campaign became a huge success.

On the other hand, at another of our clients, we witnessed a poor reaction from a major leader of a community organization when he and his wife refused to make what was considered to be a leadership commitment early enough in the campaign to provide credibility and raise the bar for “gift thinking” to others. In fact, they expressed that they were almost insulted, despite agreeing in advance to the notion of a significant gift, that they were approached so early in the campaign for a major gift, seemingly expecting that others who were less generous previously would make their gifts first rather than later. As a result, the campaign stalled, and the campaign outreach strategies had to be completely reworked. In the weeks that followed, the donor and his wife changed their thinking but damage had already been done. Campaign pace and the participation of others who might have been motivated by their giving were impacted severely.

Considering the importance of campaign leadership gifts, how then should nonprofits approach their top campaign leaders about making their own capability gifts?

We encourage our clients to approach campaign leaders in much the same way that they would want to be approached: with enthusiasm, understanding, sensitivity, knowledge, and a sense of humor. Before broaching the important question of financial commitment, executive staff must understand the campaign leaders’ connections to the organization and their motivations for becoming involved with the campaign – again, those synergies. Couple that with prospect research, together with anecdotal information, that will help to determine the leaders’ financial capacity, framing the approach for the gift.

We encourage the team (and it must be a team of at least two presenters, not one-to-one) doing the important “ask” to be assertive in setting face-to-face meetings with each campaign leader. They must be straightforward in their approach and emphasize the importance of the donor(s) investment toward the campaign’s overall success. They must demonstrate confidence when requesting the gift, and be ready to provide strong reasons why the campaign leaders must step forward with a lead or major campaign gift reflecting their capability for the effort that they have chosen to lead. The team should be ready to discuss forms of recognition that the campaign leader will receive in return for the commitment at a capability level.

Our immediate advice for all executive staff working with campaign volunteer leaders is to begin the outreach and asking process as soon as possible. Once campaign leaders have “skin in the game,” their attitudes and interests in obtaining major gifts from others will change. A strong focus on capability gifts from campaign leadership combined with a sincere effort to better get to know your campaign leaders and major donors will be the stepping stones to fundraising success.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at

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