Planning and preparing for a successful fundraising campaign

Jul 05, 2016

Capital campaign development is surrounded by optimism at all levels of an organization, but the right planning steps must be in place to help ensure success. With often large goals, there can be a temptation to rush fundraising campaigns, but you must be adequately prepared prior to launch. Proper planning does take time, but if a campaign misses its mark, it can mean a lack of funding, as well as damage to the organization’s image and organizational confidence.

RSM recently held a Strategies for a successful fundraising campaign webinar series to help nonprofit organizations understand and overcome the challenges related to capital campaigns. In this article, the first of a three-part Muse series, we examine how your organization can prepare and lay the groundwork for an effective fundraising campaign.  

Before starting a campaign, you must assess the general climate, considering your experience, positive or negative, with past capital campaigns. Donor confidence is growing and giving is on the rise, but donors are also more sophisticated with higher expectations of impact, outcomes and recognition. Now more than ever, individuals will research your organization when they are considering a gift, so you must be transparent with your public reporting and Form 990 reporting.

In addition, we are in the midst of an intergenerational transfer of wealth that may affect the structure of gifts from more senior donors and constituents. They may be better targets for endowment support rather than capital campaigns. Finally, there is a natural economic uncertainty during the election cycle, but that anxiety will likely ease as 2016 comes to a close.   

To effectively prepare for a fundraising initiative, you should consider implementing a campaign preparation checklist with key processes and tasks tied to specific milestones. The following guidelines serve as a general rule, but it could take your organization a shorter or longer amount of time to accomplish goals, depending on your resources and the complexity of your organization.

12-24 months out: Strategic planning

Effective fundraising begins with the case for support, presenting your organization and the needs that stimulate a donor to take action. However, before you can have a case, you must have a strategic plan. A strategic plan should have broad ownership and involvement that reflect the mission and goals of the entire organization, so there is confidence in the process.

People tend to support what they help create. Increased buy-in can be created by constituency-wide internal focus groups and surveys, and outside facilitators can help guide you through that process from white papers to gathering input to establishing a board retreat to create a final strategy and business plan.

It’s critical to base your strategic plan on real problems that are founded on available data, and that your solutions will work. If you do that effectively, you help create a donor connection.

6-12 months out: Campaign readiness

Approximately a year out from your planned campaign, conduct a development assessment to evaluate your internal readiness and prospect research and tracking systems. That process will provide additional recommendations to increase the strength of your campaign in advance, as making changes after it is in progress is more difficult and not as effective. In addition, if you have not already, now may be the time to consider expanding or changing the culture on your board and educate them about the campaign.

The most important process during this phase is top prospect identification and personal cultivation. You already have a strategic plan, but cultivation activity involves reporting back to those that have given you input, and detailing the plan.

During this time period, you should also assess your annual fund momentum; if it is not consistent, you are likely not ready for a campaign. The annual fund is a test for a capital campaign, and is a reliable predictor for future campaign success. If you don’t have a planned giving system in place, now is the time to implement one. Some organizations may not have the resources for a planned giving office, but your financial institution may offer charitable services or charitable gift planning capabilities.  

Finally, you must have a plan in place to manage your profile from a public relations and marketing perspective. You must maintain a positive image, and communicate that effectively to constituents to encourage giving. 

6 months out: Feasibility study

Now that you know your potential goals for a campaign, but prior to moving full steam ahead, it is generally advisable to conduct a feasibility study using outside counsel. Think of it as the final act of due diligence to query potential major campaign supporters on their interest and receptivity of the proposed campaign’s themes and initiatives. Those personally interviewed will generally be much more open and frank in their comments to outside counsel versus the organization’s board or staff. And, you’ll have the added benefit of the consulting firm’s cumulative experience and perspective in providing you the best campaign recommendations and strategy going forward.

The first step is to package your campaign initiatives into a compelling test case for support (version 1.0), which will be sent to the campaign prospects with whom the consulting firm will seek confidential in-person interviews. The case should include your institutional mission and profile, your strategic goals and how they were established, resulting campaign initiatives, education on the importance of ongoing annual support (i.e. your annual fund), a range of gifts chart and ideas for donor recognition.

In terms of the interview pool, you’ll want to focus on those constituents who have the ability to give, the ability to lead, connectedness and access to others, and organizational loyalty. The study interviews yield open and honest feedback. One of the first things you will learn is how willing those you consider as among your best prospects are to participate–or not. You will also discover the overall perceptions of your organization, how your organization is prioritized versus other organizations, what is compelling about the proposed campaign initiatives and how to tell the story better, suggestions on potential campaign leaders and lead donors, whether prospects are interested in leading or helping, and potential ranges of support.

Collectively, the study will answer the “go or no go” question, in addition to providing valuable feedback on how to revise and strengthen your case for support (version 2.0), the right timing and sequence of activities for the campaign, the optimal leadership structure and, importantly, the potential and likely range of quantifiable philanthropic support. And, if it is not advisable to proceed, the recommendations will focus on specific campaign readiness initiatives the organization should pursue.

Emanating from the feasibility study findings and recommendations, a detailed campaign operating plan serves as a blueprint for success, including what needs to happen, when and by whom, in order to achieve the campaign’s full potential. Components include the overarching campaign strategy and rationale, an organizational chart, specific roles and responsibilities for volunteer leadership (starting with the board), staff (current and proposed or new) and outside counsel (if value-added), a quarterly timeline and monthly task summary, and a revenue and expense budget.     

Preparing for a fundraising campaign can be a challenge, but with the right strategy and structure in place, the initiative will be much more successful. Doing the necessary background work with enough lead time to properly assess the climate, your readiness and the feasibility of your capital campaign will dramatically improve your ability to achieve your vision and overall mission. 

This article was developed with content from David Coyne, CFRE, The Sheridan Group.