Whether or not to undertake a capital campaign—and the size of that campaign—is not small question. Here’s how to prepare.
“He who wishes to fight must first count the cost”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
You are a leader of an organization considering taking on a major project or program, and you’re pretty sure a fundraising campaign is going to be necessary to make it a reality. But do you have the capacity to take on a fundraising campaign? The strategy? A genuine need and a compelling case? How about donors—do you have enough, and do they have sufficient capacity?
These are the questions, more or less, that are asked by organizations seeking to be good stewards of their resources, advance their cause in meaningful ways, and prepare a successful campaign.
In order to answer these questions, many organizations turn to conducting a “feasibility study.” Success (and failure) are very serious matters, and so you do not want to undertake a new program or campaign without success being virtually guaranteed through careful research and preparation.
A feasibility study can seem overwhelming, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Most organizations engage outside counsel to help with a feasibility study, but here is a summary of how to execute a successful study.
ONE: DO AN ORGANIZATION ASSESSMENT
The first step is an organizational assessment or development audit. This provides a realistic assessment of your organization’s overall development capacity by reviewing and assessing your organization’s history, structure, staff, programs, fundraising efforts, past campaigns, finances, fundraising performance, key benchmarks, and so on.
The development audit’s overall goal is to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your organization and to provide an objective statement of where things stand at present in terms of fundraising and mission execution.
There are five key areas to look at in an development audit:
- donor base composition
- donor communications
- donor cultivation
- donor acquisition
- development personnel and operations
A good assessment will look at your organization’s historic performance in these areas, assess growth and improvement over time or lingering weaknesses, and compare your organization against sector benchmarks.
TWO: SET GOALS OF THE CAMPAIGN
After the development audit, now your leadership needs to precisely define the goals for the campaign. In order to form these goals, have your leadership ask themselves these important questions:
- What are the key short-term and long-term goals of our ORGANIZATION? What do we ultimately want to achieve in CAMPAIGN GOAL?
- What do we need to raise in order to achieve these goals? Is $AMOUNT the right amount?
- What are our ORGANIZATION’s major initiatives and priorities over the next several years? Where does a campaign fit into these?
- What are the key messages our ORGANIZATION wants to convey? What is the best way to convey those messages?
- What are the resources (personnel, financial, etc.) available to our ORGANIZATION? Are they sufficient?
- What would be the timeline for the campaign?
- What are the key metrics for assessing the campaign’s success?
THREE: DEVELOP A MESSAGE
Formulating the who, what, when, and why of the campaign—commonly called a preliminary campaign case statement—is the next crucial step in the capital campaign process.
The campaign case statement is the campaign’s basic argument to key stakeholders. At this “preliminary” stage, the document is meant to solicit key donors’ reactions and gauge their level of support. It is essential for your case statement to include your mission and vision, and how the proposed projects fit into both of those.
The case statement should explain how the campaign is essential to advancing the mission and help donor to see exactly how they can be involved to realize the goals.
FOUR: SURVEY KEY STAKEHOLDERS
Next, using a questionnaire—a series of case statements and campaign-related questions—your organization’s leaders or your campaign services company will interview key stakeholders whose opinions matter. You will want to interview staff, the board, and a sizeable number of major donors or donors with major-donor capacity.
Depending on the size of your campaign and your organization, you should conduct confidential interviews with 20-100 stakeholders in order to gauge their reaction to your preliminary case statement and their level of support for a major campaign. These interviews will help determine where lead gifts may come from and how animated your donor base is by the opportunity. In addition to the development audit, this is a key data point for determining the size of the campaign. The audit tells you how effective (or ineffective) your development operations, and the stakeholder interviews tell you have excited and engaged your donors are.
That is crucial information, so you’ll want to take the conversations seriously, budgeting enough time for them. If your campaign is small in size and scope, these interviews may take place over six to eight weeks, but if you have a much larger campaign, these interviews may take between six to twelve months.
FIVE: DO EXTERNAL RESEARCH
Another critical step in your feasibility study is to think about donors outside of your organization. What is unique or different about your organization that would attract external donors who currently do not give to you? The answer to this question is important when you begin to research and estimate how much your organization might be able to raise from external foundations, corporations, and individual donors. Heading into a major campaign, you’ll want to be crystal clear on why you stand out and how you might use the campaign as an opportunity to attract new donors—and who some of those donors may be.
SIX: REPORT FEASIBILITY STUDY FINDINGS
Whether conducting the study yourself or hiring an outside firm, it is important to process and synthesize everything you have learned into a report. This report gives you a valuable assessment of your overall fundraising strengths and weaknesses and likelihood of success in undertaking a capital campaign. It helps your organization’s leadership make more effective decisions regarding the deployment of scarce development resources in preparing for your capital campaign and to set realistic and achievable goals. For your report to be the most effective, make sure it includes the following:
- A final recommendation as to whether or not your organization should proceed with a capital campaign
- Synthesized answers to the interview questions and why these led to your recommendation
- How your case statement can be improved
- Recommendations for campaign leadership
- Clear recommendations for strengthening your organization’s capacity to take on a campaign
- Funding sources/a pathway to reaching your goal
- Concrete next steps
You began the fundraising campaign process by asking yourself if your goal was possible. Now, with the results of your campaign feasibility study, you have your answer. If your research suggested your organization is not quite ready for your campaign, your time was not wasted. It’s important not to rush ill-prepared into a campaign. More than this, you can use the results of the study to strengthen any areas of weakness. Down the line, your organization will be ready to pursue its big goals if you fix what is lacking.
On the other hand, if your feasibility study comes back with results that suggest your capital campaign has a promising outcome, congratulations! You have laid the groundwork and are now ready to begin pursuing the exciting new project your organization has dreamed about.