Pre-Campaign Planning: The Foundation for Successful Campaigns
by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Building a successful fundraising campaign is not unlike the engineering of a “bricks & mortar” building, which must be constructed on a solid foundation. Similarly, planning and executing a successful fundraising campaign requires establishing a solid base. Using a strategic set of conscious decisions to inform the construction will impact the scope, case, and framework for the campaign. Whether the campaign is for facilities, endowment, debt reduction or other purposes, the foundation for the effort is a quality pre-campaign evaluation, one that goes well beyond merely the estimate of a potential fundraising goal but rather provides the information necessary to properly “construct” the campaign.

In the past, nonprofits called upon consultants to perform a “feasibility study:” a series of interviews which typically resulted in little more information than an estimate of the amount of money that could be successfully raised in an organization’s planned fundraising campaign. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, the philosophy and approach towards such studies have changed, requiring a comprehensive set of answers to key questions that must be asked as a precursor to a major campaign.

A pre-campaign study must tackle a host of critical issues and, when done properly, yields essential information necessary for effective implementation. During the pre-campaign study, the consultant is able to get an unbiased view of the relationship between the organization and its stakeholders/members/donors through personal and confidential interviews, and then use the information collected to offer insights about organizational strength and inform the prospective campaign about issues that drive inclination to give.

At EHL Consulting, we discontinued using the term “feasibility study” more than ten years ago. The question of “feasibility” implies a measure of potential failure, when what the study is really accomplishing is gathering the opinions from the men and women who would make the campaign a success. Thus, why start with such negative terminology? In the ensuing years, most others in the field have followed us.

We have also fashioned an approach that allows us to have direct contact with various organizational constituents, thereby being exposed to how people “really” feel. Often, some donors and leaders are reluctant to talk honestly to people they constantly interact with, especially if things bother them about varied institutional policies, including financial transparency (or lack thereof), employment policies (relating to hiring and firing of key staff), or donor recognition (too inconsistent or not appropriate).

Not insignificant, too, is what we learn about donor interests. Even though organizational leaders may contend that they “know” their donors, quite often donors have differing views that they share more willingly with an objective audience. For one campaign, a conversation began last month – based on some information gleaned during the pre-campaign interview – that led to a re-packaging of a suggested gift … raising the conversation from a mid-six figure gift to a solid $1 million approach!

No organization is immune from criticism, and the confidential interviews that comprise a pre-campaign study represent an important opening of communication, especially between top leaders, donors, and others. For example, earlier this year, a pre-campaign study we developed for a young American “friends” organization looking to expand its U.S. presence revealed that the Israeli leaders had lost sight of the feelings U.S. donors had about the organization. Concurrently, some of the stakeholders that were contacted were so thrilled to have been singled out that they re-doubled their involvement as well as their advocacy for the organization.

Though each nonprofit organization is unique, there are several areas that should be part of any pre-campaign evaluation, including:

  • Connection – How are the members/donors connected to the organization? How do these connections manifest themselves and what drives them? Learning how members/donors interact with the organization, specifically what services of the organization have the greatest impact on its members/donors and their families, can be the key to crafting a compelling case for support. Just how important is the organization to the members/donors?
  • Images & Perceptions – How do the members/donors perceive the organization? What are the perceived strengths and weaknesses? What value is there in the service that the organization provides? Are there underlying issues which would affect the successful completion of the campaign? What, if any, changes, do members/donors want to see in the organization, and, if it is a planned capital campaign, in the facilities?
  • Transparency & Communication – Today’s donors are often savvy and want to understand the long-term implications of their gifts. How much information does the organization share with its members/donors? Do they understand the financial need? How important is the organization to others or to the community?
  • Commitment – What is the level of commitment of the members/donors to the organization? Are the commitments of the members/donors shared by the organization? Where does the organization stand among their charitable priorities? What steps are the members/donors willing to take to express their commitment?
  • Financial Capacity – Will the community support the campaign? What capacity exists and, more importantly, what is the inclination? What is an appropriate goal for the campaign and are there sufficient individuals to support it? How does the members/donors’ commitments to the organization translate into potential gifts?
  • The Case for Giving – Do the members/donors understand the nature of the prospective campaign? Do they think that the campaign objectives are important? If the campaign is successful, how will it affect themselves, their families and future generations? What would be the risk of not moving forward?
  • Building a Campaign – Do the other members/donors see the need for the campaign? How will they react? Is there sufficient volunteer leadership for a successful campaign, and who might be the potential leaders?
  • Feedback – The pre-campaign study also should provide the opportunity for the members/donors to provide open and honest feedback to the organizational leadership, anonymously, on issues that have meaning to them.

Once the interviews are completed, a good consultant uses the data to present an unbiased, comprehensive, and confidential report to the organization based on the information collected and analyzed during the process. The report will reflect the learned information of the organization, its members/donors, and the relationship between the two. The report will also reflect the “as is” condition of the organization, detailing what is working and what is not, as well as describing the members/donors readiness to psychologically and financially “digest” a campaign. Based on this information, the report will recommend the next steps to be taken.

Several years ago, one synagogue leader suggested to us that the study could be developed without really doing any interviews. The document, he contended, is one he could have developed himself since he “knew” his congregation inside and out and our research was totally irrelevant. The results we discovered were very different. Suffice it to say, our objective recommendations resulted in some critical adjustments to volunteer leadership for a proposed multimillion dollar campaign that would have failed because it would not have resonated with donors.

While the resulting report might include corrective steps necessary to rectify underlying organizational issues before a campaign should begin, most times there are two key results coming out of the pre-campaign study. First, substantial next steps will be established towards building a successful campaign, including donor prospecting and nurturing. Second, critical campaign objectives will come into better focus, including key campaign organization, campaign messages and the campaign goal.

A study we conducted earlier this year for another prominent congregation reflected that members really did not want to support any capital-focused projects; rather, they wanted to see financial strength manifested in the form of a stronger, bigger endowment. The campaign that resulted was an endowment-only effort that is succeeding for a number of reasons, not the least is being the donor-centric focus that resulted from an in-depth pre-campaign study.

Ultimately, the pre-campaign study becomes the very foundation on which campaigns are built. To succeed, leadership must do away with the often “knee-jerk” intuitive reactions and move forward with a campaign that is organized and executed based on thorough and accurate information about the organization and its members/donors. Starting a campaign based on a set of invalidated assumptions will lead to unfulfilled (and unrealistic) expectations. However, the knowledge gained in a comprehensive pre-campaign study provides the strong base necessary to build a successful, sustainable campaign.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp; EHL Consulting Group Blog: biggiver.wordpress.com

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