By Robert Evans
“I can’t wait until someone calls me for a donation, so I can resign from the synagogue!”
I have spent decades in the Jewish community and fundraising consultation and have sat through my share of difficult meetings. But my meeting with this particular synagogue member – sorry, I am not going to say who or where – was perhaps the most difficult, tense and contentious I have ever had. Think banging fists on the table, red in the face tense. The meeting was actually an interview for a Pre-Campaign Assessment. A PCA is a study or process consisting of a number of interviews that investigates communal attitudes toward a potential campaign and aims to establish a realistic dollar amount goal. This member had amassed serious wealth and was a potential major donor to the campaign. Not incorrectly, he pointed to examples of financial mismanagement of synagogue funds in the not-too-distant past and objected to the very idea of a campaign. Of course, after this encounter, I wrote this person off as a potential donor. More to the point, I worried that this person would become a perennial thorn in the side of the campaign effort. At its heart, a fundraising campaign is about rallying people to a cause and asking them to invest in an institution and a desired outcome. No one wants a loud, vociferous and influential opponent of such an effort.
So, what happened?
Well, most of the other members I interviewed loved their synagogue and expressed a readiness to give meaningfully. Many members referred to some of the same financial issues, but there was a strong sense that they were either in the past or being addressed in the present. Now, fast forward a few months, and I delivered the results of the PCA report to the entire congregation, after having already briefed the board. Who should I see in the pews but my old “friend.” I cringed. I prepared for an outburst. I calculated how I might respond if he started screaming.
It didn’t happen. Instead, he cornered me in the hall and gave me one of the biggest surprises of my long professional career. I wasn’t taking notes, but this is pretty close to what he said:
“I thought a lot about what you said. This campaign is exactly what the congregation needs. I have confidence that, with the proper safeguards in place, the money will be in good hands. I can’t be an active member of the leadership team, because, quite frankly, I don’t work very well in teams. I am a solo player. But anything else you need, I am here and ready!”
To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised. In my mind, I did a little happy dance. More than anything else, the episode highlights the importance of the PCA process. In the past, PCAs were called feasibility studies. (Amazingly, some in the nonprofit world still use the feasibility study term.) From my perspective, the old terminology carries a negative connotation even before the campaign begins. The questions and answers are really more complicated then “can we or can’t we succeed.”An organization should presuppose the possibility of success before embarking on a major undertaking. How can we best frame and execute a major fundraising effort? The PCA, when properly conducted, offers the best way for any organization to come up with a viable, realistic dollar amount for a campaign goal.
Perhaps most importantly the PCA allows the organization to begin to approach major donors in a non-pressure situation. It is almost like a pre-season or spring training game. There are no “asks” in a PCA interview. It offers the prospective donor plenty of time to think about the potential campaign and mull it over. Oftentimes, attitudes shift in the months between the initial PCA interview and a solicitation meeting. The about-face I described in this post doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen.
I’ve had other brushes with PCA serendipity. Once, at another congregation, I was interviewing a prospective donor who happened to mention that he’d never had a Bar Mitzvah. Now there’s a tradition of men celebrating their Bar Mitzvahs at the age of 83. Psalm 90 states, “The span of our life is 70 years,” so, living 13 years past the age of 70 is considered a meaningful milestone. The prospective donor didn’t know this and I didn’t say anything. But I told his rabbi and the rabbi approached him. The two studied together and the man, I am told, did a beautiful job reading from the Torah for the first time at his Bar Mitzvah. He formed a close bond with the rabbi and ended up becoming a major donor to the synagogue’s campaign. The interview, it seems, had led to a mitzvah multiplier effect.
I can’t promise miracles for every PCA interview, or even every PCA, but your organization will learn a lot more about where it stands with current and potential donors. And who knows, you may change a few hearts and minds along the way.
Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and a board member of the Giving Institute, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.