From time-to-time, I will invite an outstanding, published book author to write a guest post. If you’d like to learn about how to be a guest blogger, click on the “Authors” tab above.
This week, I have invited Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE, author of Capital Campaigns: Everything You NEED to Know. Linda is a friend, and I have joked with her that she is the Stephen King of the fundraising world. I tease her about this, not because she writes horror stories, but because she is nearly as prolific as King. She has at least eight titles to her name!
I know, from personal experience, that writing a book requires a great deal of time and effort. Linda has long been willing to do what it takes to share her wisdom. Her books are always practical, accessible, and full of useful tips culled from her decades of experience.
Capital Campaigns is her latest book. The official description of her book says, “Do you work for or serve on the board of a nonprofit that is thinking about or ready to launch a capital campaign? Capital Campaigns: Everything You NEED to Know will equip you to determine your organization’s readiness for a campaign; help you decide if and when you need a planning study; show you how to allocate your human and financial resources effectively; guide you in creating a compelling case statement; provide you with the tools to evaluate your chances for success; give you how-to advice to plan every aspect of your campaign; and put at your fingertips ample examples of sample forms and charts.” Like I said, Linda always offers practical advice in her books.
For her article here, I played on my Stephen King joke and asked Linda to share some capital campaign horror stories and to let us know what we should NOT do in our capital campaigns. Here’s a chance to learn from the mistakes of others:
I’m an eternal optimist. So, I generally focus on the best ways to do things. But, for this article, I decided I would look at capital campaigns from a different perspective. I thought about some of the campaign mistakes I’ve seen organizations make over the years and realized I had, unfortunately, a lot of negative experiences from which I’ve learned. As I share some of the mistakes I’ve encountered, I hope you will learn from them, too. So, here is my list of things you should not do in a capital campaign:
Don’t underestimate the value of volunteer leadership in your campaign. If you asked me to list the most successful campaigns I’ve been involved with to the least successful and then asked me to list the best volunteer campaign leaders to the worst, guess what? The list would be just about identical. In other words, the campaigns that have the best volunteer leaders are the most successful ones.
I’ll share another story with you that proves my point in a positive way. Another organization sought out a top community leader to serve as honorary chair of its campaign. Although this community leader did not have a real strong tie to the organization, he was very persuasive in making the case. The “honorary chair” not only agreed to serve, but attended and led every meeting, made a significant gift to the campaign, and his leadership was enough to convince the presidents of four local banks and other top community leaders to get involved. This campaign went over goal in the time allotted.
Don’t just choose a leader because they love your organization or because they are a “big name in town.” Despite my positive story above, I’ve seen both of these cases and they are often disastrous. One organization chose a campaign chair because she was influential in the community but guess what—she missed meetings, arrived late and left early, didn’t make her own commitment because she had “other charities she was committed to,” and on and on. How successful was this campaign?
After about 12 years, the organization is still floundering. Another organization chose to appoint its board chair as the campaign chair because he was very committed to the organization. But, he had very little community influence and was reluctant to ask anyone for money. This campaign fell far short of its goal. Carefully selecting campaign leadership is critically important.
Don’t overestimate the use of printed and electronic campaign materials. One organization was convinced by a marketing firm with whom they worked that they needed to produce a glossy brochure and a video so they could “sell their story” to people. Although the consultants tried their best to get the organization to understand that they first needed to “test their case” by doing a planning study and from that study to identify and cultivate potential leadership donors, rather than presenting the campaign as a “done deal, so early in the game,” the marketing firm nevertheless convinced them to create an expensive video and elaborate brochure.
Unfortunately, none of their board members were comfortable identifying major donor prospects or even asking them during a study how likely they were to support this campaign. Needless to say, the organization “put the cart before the horse.” The study was suspended, the board started distributing the brochures and showing the video, thinking these marketing tools alone would persuade donors to give. Several years have gone by and the $7,000,000 piece of land that had been donated is still a vacant lot.
Don’t announce your campaign too soon. One small organization that was in the midst of a $1.5 million dollar campaign had planned a kickoff event to announce their campaign early on in an attempt to gain wide-spread community support in their small town. The campaign was not well organized and had not raised much money, but the event was scheduled to coincide with a milestone in the organization’s history so they decided to proceed with the kickoff event.
The evening of the event they announced that they had raised — Are you ready for this? Drum roll, please! — $16,000. The audience was astounded. How did this organization ever think it could raise $1.5 million? This event not only ruined the chances for success for this organization, but a year or so later, another organization in this community backed off from even attempting a $1.5 million campaign because of the memory of this disaster.
Don’t try to proceed with a campaign without a well-crafted case for support. An arts organization that owned a beautiful historic building in which they held classes, had exhibits, and hosted concerts decided to launch a campaign to renovate their building and bring it up to code. However, the person who prepared their case for support did not have fundraising experience. He produced an attractive piece with some great photos, but once the reader began to peruse the literature, it presented a “poor, needy nonprofit” approach. It even went as far as talking about the historic building being “termite-infested,” and stated that the main support beam was in danger of collapsing.
Hmm, I don’t think I would want to send my kids for an after-school art class in this building. Would you? Long story short, once they brought in a consultant who knew how to write a case, they had to throw away a lot of expensive printed material and start over again.
Don’t think hiring a consultant is the “magic bullet” you need to succeed. The staff and board need to understand their roles in the campaign as well as the role of volunteers. In most cases, the consultant is not the person who will talk to your donors about making a gift. The consultant is there as a coach, trainer, planner and organizer. But the organization’s leadership and the volunteer leadership recruited to serve on the campaign cabinet is critical to success.
Avoid these capital campaign pitfalls, and you’ll be far better off than many nonprofit organizations.
That’s what Michael Rosen and Linda Lysakowski say… What do you say?