One of the things I love most about working with nonprofit leaders is the passion they bring to their missions. When translated into a clear vision, their positive energy is the basis for the strategic decisions that need to be made and for motivating and directing the team that makes that vision a reality.
With all of these factors in place, their chances of success go up exponentially. And when dramatic challenges arise—a worldwide pandemic, a market downturn, unforeseen staffing challenges—they are poised to lead their staff in adapting and persevering. Their organization can even emerge from such challenges stronger than before.
This combination of passion and perseverance in pursuit of a mission is what author and professor of psychology Angela Duckworth calls “grit,” the single biggest factor that determines greatness in athletics, academics, and other pursuits. In a nonprofit, a founder’s or leader’s grit needs to shape the culture, policies, and goals of the organization.
And deciding if your organization is ready for a capital campaign is the perfect time for such a gut-check … or “grit-check.” I’m not talking about fundraising theory or personality analysis—I’m talking about specific, practical ways that you can tell if your nonprofit has the grit to take on the challenge of a capital campaign.
Here’s what that looks like in practical terms for a nonprofit that is looking at embarking upon a campaign.
The essential question is this: will your leadership do whatever it takes to meet the goals of the campaign? Especially with small and mid-size nonprofits, leaders will be directly involved with asking the biggest prospects for donations. At American Philanthropic, our job is to be perfectly clear about the metrics we are looking at, the goals, timeline, and both strategic and practical thinking. But without a determined “yes” from organizational leadership that can be passed on to development staff (in the eighties they called it “buy in”), the goals, metrics, and messaging don’t really matter.
We need to focus on both number and capacity. An organization that has been pursuing its mission with grit and intensity is likely to have a diverse donor pool. When we conduct a capacity study from a large and engaged donor pool, we can often come up with a favorable capacity analysis that points in favor of pursing the campaign. But I’ve also had to advise clients that they’re not yet ready for the campaign they had in mind, and they may need to readjust their goals or begin growing a broader donor base that is more deeply engaged in the mission. A capital campaign is a different gear in development: you’re usually talking about much larger gifts, so affinity is important, but capacity to give a major gift matters a great deal. You’ll need a sizeable donor base with capacity and strong affinity for your mission who can make major gifts and become your advocates with their friends who have capacity as well.
Your grit has to translate into action, and unless you have a few extraordinarily wealthy friends ready to write huge checks, you’re going to need a plan. Clients are often surprised by how specific a campaign plan is—but the fact is that without specific, measurable, ambitious, and realistic goals and timeline, your development team is going to have trouble finding their footing. And it’s not only for the staff—it’s for your biggest donors. If you’re asking a donor for $50,000, $100,000, $1,000,000 or more, you’re not just inviting them to the play, you’re showing them the script and the stage directions. Since many high-capacity donors are experienced investors, they appreciate seeing the goals and finding the right spot for themselves in the broader vision, perhaps even taking ownership of some part of the overall goal. Having a plan will help you and your staff, but it will also help donors see their place in the campaign and assure them of your ability to be successful.
This is where your grit finds its voice—where passion and vision meet the reality of your persistence and effectiveness. This isn’t just painting a pretty picture. You need to show your donors that you can execute, that you can make the picture a reality. And you need to show your donors that it matters that you make that picture a reality: your mission matters, and the world is worse off if this campaign isn’t successful. Remember that you’re not asking for operating funds here—you’re making a major capital or program investment that will make a huge difference in your effectiveness, which means a huge difference in your community, the world, the lives of your constituents, and so on. So make sure you craft both a clear and passionate vision—and proof of competence—to tell your prospective donors that your grand goal is realistic and worthy of their support.
Grit includes—in fact requires—the readiness to take risks. If you want to raise $10 million or $20 million, you can’t just put a number up on a whiteboard and tell your existing development team to go get it. You have to invest some resources into raising that money. You can’t spend the same amount of time and money as you currently are spending on development and expect a much greater return. For my clients who have executed successful campaigns in the past, this is a no-brainer, but it sometimes surprises those looking at the possibility of a campaign for the first time.
There is an intensity to a capital campaign that goes beyond normal annual fundraising. The goals—and the asks—are bigger. The timeline is essential. The stakes are higher, and the tone and tempo change.
That’s why I say—even in light of all the necessary work of feasibility studies and strategic planning—that a capital campaign is a “grit-check” for your organization. Vision is essential, but without the passion and drive to meet the challenge that a campaign presents, embarking on one could be a bad idea. It can even be disastrous.