Designing a Communications Plan to Enhance Your Fund-Raising Campaign

Don’t Confuse a “Communications Plan” with a “Marketing Plan”

A well-conceived communications plan will be essential to the success of your campaign, especially in the case of a broad-based effort that is directed to the general public. As components of this plan, the case for support, campaign brochure, and publicity plan will create an awareness of your organization’s value to the community and the financial need that necessitates the campaign. This broad-based public awareness will assist in creating a climate conducive to giving.

At the outset, let’s clear up some confusion about the respective roles of a communications plan and a marketing plan. All too often, the process designed to convince prospective donors to contribute to a non-profit organization is described as “marketing.” However, according to Webster, “Marketing is all business activity involved in the moving of goods from the producer to the consumer.” While this for-profit definition might be stretched to relate as well to the “delivery” by non-profits of food, therapy, medicine, education, cultural events, etc. to constituencies, it’s apparent that soliciting a charitable gift involves a very different transaction

The sale of commercial products involves an explicit selling and buying environment which customers understand and expect. By contrast, when we seek voluntary charitable contributions, we are working in a substantially different transactional environment. Rather than selling a product to prospective donors based on its best value in the marketplace, we are presenting donors with an opportunity to realize their own, perhaps unformulated, desire to contribute to the welfare of their community and to associated causes. So, while there are some close parallels in “selling”– in the case of a for-profit business—and “soliciting”—in the case of a non-profit charitable organization, there are also significant differences worth noting.

Our challenge, then, is to effectively utilize the communications and public relations programs of an organization, (supplemented, if need be, by the services of a consultant) to create or further enhance a favorable climate for giving to the organization. The focus and scope of this effort will vary considerably from campaign to campaign and from organization to organization.

That’s because, in addition to the nature and personality of the organization itself, there are other broad variables related to the campaign, such as its purpose, timeline, and dollar goal that will dictate a custom-designed approach to creating public awareness. In every case, however, an organization will have its own constituencies whose characteristics and needs must be individually considered.

The broader the base of prospects for a campaign, the greater the need for a communications plan. Annual campaigns have the greatest potential for broad support; therefore it’s essential that each constituency be kept well informed at all times about fundraising efforts that are under way.

Because their success will rely on fewer support constituencies and donors, capital and endowment campaigns require less of a concerted publicity effort. Publicity, under the most ideal circumstances, is likely to generate only a tangential awareness of a campaign. Instead, communication to prospective donors to capital and endowment campaigns needs to come directly and personally from campaign leaders and solicitors. This direct communication is the only way the intricacies of the case for support can be explained satisfactorily to potential major donors.

The case for support … the campaign brochure… the publicity plan—will all be essential tools as you embark upon your campaign.

Tool 1. Developing a Persuasive “Case for Support”
for a Fund-Raising Campaign

The case for support presents the rationale for supporting a fund-raising campaign or project. Properly executed, it is one of—if not the most—powerful and compelling tools your organization can have in communicating its fund-raising objective and in persuading prospective donors to make a commitment. It is also the principal tool used to recruit volunteer campaign leaders and solicitors. Think of the case for support as more than a document. Its message should be uppermost in the minds and hearts of volunteer campaign leaders and solicitors so that they are prepared to confidently articulate its salient points to prospective donors on a face to face, personal basis.

The “case” grows out of an organization’s mission in the sense that money raised will be used by the organization to support its mission. Therefore, it should articulate the organization’s reason for being, its history, the integrity of its mission, vision, and programs, the good it does, the good it aspires to do, an assessment of need for the campaign, and the specifics of the campaign’s objectives. The case should state the organization’s unique ability to fill the demonstrated need of an identified constituency, affirm the efficiency of campaign planning, instill a feeling of intrinsic personal reward to the donor, and, very importantly, convey a sense of urgency.

Here is a suggested outline and sequence for a case for support, based on compelling case statements we’ve seen:

  1. Let’s break the “ho-hum” barrier. (Introduction designed to engage interest in the organization and problem/challenge).
  2. We’re relevant within a broader context. (If appropriate, brief overview of how the problem we’re addressing may reflect a more global problem)
  3. We’re proud of our past. (History of organization)
  4. Please read on. (Here’s what is special about our organization. Value of our programs and services.)
  5. Here’s a compelling challenge that deserves your attention. (We have carefully assessed the need.)
  6. We did our homework before embarking on this campaign. (Thoroughness of initial planning and research)
  7. We can make it work. (We have the organization and resources to accomplish our objectives.)
  8. What’s in it for you? (Here’s your opportunity to do something heroic.)
  9. Do it now, please! (We’re asking you to take action now, and we will make it easy for you to do so.)

To answer a frequently asked question, the length of the case should relate to the magnitude of the campaign or project. Clearly, you must present sufficient information about both your organization as a whole and your project in particular to give the prospective donor a basis for making an important decision. Too little information is insulting. Too much risks losing the reader’s attention. As a “reader-friendly” tip, I would suggest a table of contents as an accompaniment to the case. This enables a reader with little time—or attention span—to zero in on, or return to, segments of particular interest in the case statement.

Tool 2. Writing and Designing a Winning Campaign Brochure

A fund-raising campaign brochure is another important tool for communicating the worth of a campaign to a targeted audience, as well as for making an organization’s “family” more knowledgeable about their organization and the purpose and structure of the campaign. Recognizing that a great deal can be learned from the examples and experiences of others, at the outset it will be useful to study copies of brochures from the campaigns of other non-profit organizations.

Typically, when the subject of a campaign brochure publication comes up, it is greeted with an exclamation that goes something like this: “A brochure won’t raise a nickel!” Please know that this response is far too dismissive and, if left unaddressed, could result in a disregard for what is actually a key fundraising tool, particularly for capital and endowment campaigns.

True, “People raise money, not fund-raising publications.” However, people can be more effective in raising money if they are given the resources which will help establish the best possible climate for a solicitation. Having an official brochure in hand is essential in establishing the perception in the potential donor’s mind that the campaign is professional and in providing confidence to volunteer leaders and solicitors. Hand anyone a brand new “off the press” publication and watch his or her face brighten and eyes spark with interest. Just the feel of the publication in hand works wonders.

So, beware of prejudiced and diverse opinions coming from the organization’s leadership concerning the writing and design of the campaign’s key publication. Do watch out for unanticipated obstacles to the development of the brochure which could endlessly hang up the campaign’s progress—and in the process seriously frustrate the efforts of those running the campaign.

On this subject, I have seen campaigns actually languish and die because the organization could not agree on the text, design, length, graphics, etc. of the brochure. Typically, this impasse occurs more often in capital and endowment campaigns than in annual campaigns because such campaigns are viewed as special events. Because they are not repeated every year, a previous brochure is not there to serve as a comfortable model. Faced with the prospect of creating a document from scratch, everyone on the campaign committee seems to be magically transformed into a writer or creative artist. Also, the inherently ambitious nature of capital and endowment campaigns—with their commitment to expansion—can strike fear in the hearts of campaign leaders and volunteers. In their wish to be adequately prepared to ensure success, these individuals have the potential to become inordinately involved with the actual nuts and bolts of developing the campaign brochure.

Therefore, campaign management, guided by the expertise of communications specialists, should make decisions about the brochure and other related materials early on and stick to those decisions. Accept the fact that it will be impossible to obtain the complete agreement of everyone involved on each and every point, and don’t set up a situation where you have to ultimately disregard a stated preference about a favorite color or treasured phrase from a campaign leader. While consensus is important in fund-raising, it does not mean that you must arm every member of your campaign committee with veto power in this area.

The campaign brochure, while taking a less academic approach, incorporates many of the same subjects as the case for support:

  1. Campaign Chair’s message (A letter format can be effective.)
  2. Mission and Vision
  3. Overview of background and history
  4. Programs and services
  5. Case for support of particular project – assessment of need
  6. Drawings, tables, and diagrams relating to the campaign
  7. Ways to Give (cash, stock, in-kind contributions, multi-year installments)
  8. Roster of Campaign Chair and committee
  9. Roster of Board of Trustees, Staff
  10. “Named Gift Opportunities  for endowment and capital campaigns; “Membership Categories”for annual fund campaigns.
  11. Endorsements and support quotes from civic, corporate, government leaders. Typically incorporated in a graphic scheme throughout the brochure.
  12. Acknowledgments for donated and in-kind services for campaign publications.

Please note that there is considerable flexibility in the placement of items 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. For example, the mission and vision statements and committee and board rosters might appear on the inside front or back cover. Other components might well be incorporated as attachments in a brochure pocket.

Tool 3. Announcing and Publicizing Your Campaign.

Bear in mind that publicity should be sought only in order to specifically support and enhance the fund-raising effort. Properly handled, it creates a public awareness of the reason for the campaign, rather than of the campaign itself. Publicity in the case of a fundraising campaign is nothing more than the scheduling of announcements and events at intervals which will work to achieve your goal. The community’s news media and your organization’s own newsletter are the vehicles for informing the public and your constituencies of your plans.

Opportunities for publicity should be planned and committed to a timetable and incorporated within the campaign’s overall calendar. Announcing your campaign to constituency groups is a first step in preparing them to be solicited. Actually, most campaign press releases can be written prior to the campaign kickoff, with names and numbers inserted at the appropriate time. With capital and endowment campaigns, it is best not to issue the first press release until a certain level of success has been reached, as reflected, for example, by a major leadership gift. In capital campaigns, you have the advantage of being able to report and show tangible progress, such as construction, renovation, or purchase of an asset. Just remember that all public statements should emanate from a single spokesperson—usually the Campaign Chair.

An effective publicity effort requires that someone take the responsibility for its execution. This function is best left to the communications or marketing departments of an organization or to a volunteer or paid communications professional. It is their area of expertise, after all, and the savvy fund-raising manager asks that they generate the required publicity, leaving those responsible for fund-raising to concentrate on achieving the campaign goal.

The following events or milestones can be scheduled as “publicity getters.”

  1. Introduction of Campaign Chair and campaign goal.
  2. Introduction of volunteer campaign leaders and solicitors.
  3. Campaign kickoff event – carefully planned civic and community leader participation.
  4. First major gift received.
  5. Twenty-five per cent of goal reached.
  6. Fifty per cent of goal reached.
  7. Seventy-five per cent of goal reached.
  8. Status of major gifts received, as appropriate, including significant “named gift” announcements in the case of capital and endowment campaigns.
  9. Ground-breaking, in the case of capital campaigns.
  10. Ninety per cent of goal reached.
  11. Total goal reached.
  12. Dedication, in the case of a capital campaign, and a celebration in the case of every campaign.

You should also be on the alert to recognize any additional publicity opportunities that aren’t anticipated at the campaign’s outset.

These are my views on the subject of the importance of a well conceived communications plan to your fund-raising campaign. What are yours? Your comments and suggestions will be most welcome.

ADDENDUM

Balancing Publicity And Fund-Raising Efforts

The article you have just read seeks to clarify and simplify the process non-profits could follow to publicize and communicate their fund-raising campaign plans to donors, prospective donors, leadership, other volunteers, staff, and when appropriate, to the community in general.

The article is the result of numerous experiences over the years regarding the confusion organizations have understanding marketing and communications. A recent and specific such example was related to me by an organization’s Director of Development regarding the difficulty she is having with her Board leaders and with a top-flight advertising company—the latter producing quality pro bono work, but most of that work is apparently not directly enhancing or supporting a $3 million capital fund-raising campaign in the way such efforts should. The leadership and the ad agency plan to “market” the campaign, while the development staff desires to “communicate” the campaign. Obviously, these are two starkly conflicting views.

Almost all of the time, energy, and some money given to the project is being directed to “market” a capital campaign to the entire service region of the D/D’s non-profit. Yet, it is forecast that the $3 million sought will (correctly and necessarily) come from only thirty to forty donors—and those donors will most likely give 85% to 90% percent of what will ultimately be raised, and they will represent about 10% of the total number of donors to the campaign. It would seem to make sense that these prospective major donors—the ones expected to give all or most of the money—simply need one-on-one “communication” made to them of the case for support.

Then why is most of the effort being expended to “market” the campaign to thousands upon thousands of individuals having little or no stake in the organization, rather than to “communicate” the essentials of the case for support to the small number of potential major givers?

The answer is that it is all too usual that talented and creative people possessing good intentions simply do not know where the “threshold” is between creating the best possible and practical “climate” for fund-raising, and when to have the basic mechanisms and tools in place to use to effectively solicit the very few prospects who will make or break any major gifts campaign.

And—unfortunately—it is usually far more attractive to work to produce up-front publicity, PR, and promotion programs than it is to work behind-the-scenes in the day-to-day care and feeding of a campaign: the slogging process of writing a case statement, identifying and rating major prospects, building a network of volunteers, training them, and so on.

If your organization is currently in the same position as reported above—or if it will be at a later time—perhaps the comments and suggestions I made to the D/D cited above will be of help.

  1. All major gifts campaigns must seek to raise the most money from the fewest sources in the least amount of time. You do not “market” to them—you “communicate” to them.
  2. That premise is followed by the development of a concise communications plan which features three key components: (1) Case for Support; (2) Campaign Brochure; (3) Publicity Schedule.
  3. Rather than “marketing” the major gifts campaign to an organization’s broad constituency or to the community in general, such efforts should be expended to create a public awareness of the reason for the campaign, rather than of the campaign itself. If you are to “market” anything, you should market your organization’s programs and services — the ones to be installed, enhanced or improved should the campaign be successful.
  4. You can be seriously distracted from the necessary major-giver approach and be greatly disappointed if you expect the broad community to understand such a campaign, and if you expect them to contribute to it in amounts of money which will make an impact on the sizable goal. And it becomes even worse if you “market” to an unknown (and alas), mostly uncaring or unresponsive public.

These are my views on the subject of the importance of a well conceived communications plan to your fund-raising campaign. What are yours? Your comments and suggestions will be most welcome.

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2 responses to “Designing a Communications Plan to Enhance Your Fund-Raising Campaign”

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  1. Tony Poderis says:

    Meredith: It is clear to me that your “Y’ donors are in very good and knowing hands.

    The “outcomes”is the key effort you are expending. There are a number of ways to determine how you are doing in terms of human improvement, and the ways donors can know about your Mission fulfillment in order to be satisfied and justified in their giving.

    Just a few such tools are available on my website to possibly reinforce your good work:

    – Building Donor Loyalty
    A Goal For Every Organization
    http://www.raise-funds.com/2003/building-donor-loyalty-chapter-1/

    – The Fallacy Of Financial Ratios:
    Why Outcome Evaluation Is The Better Gauge Of Grant Worthiness
    http://www.raise-funds.com/2002/the-fallacy-of-financial-ratios-why-outcome-evaluation-is-the-better-gauge-of-grant-worthiness/
    (See at the end of the article several ways to gauge outcomes.)

    – Donor Surveys
    http://www.raise-funds.com/2007/donor-surveys/

  2. Well done article on what is sometimes a confusing topic! I believe that a communications plan goes hand in hand with a case statement and brochure. Love that you illuminate the difference between “broadcasting” a campaign and “narrow-casting” for success. Got to know who your donors are and this is where relationship building comes in. I look forward to meeting with my major donors to update them and educate them on the new things we have going on and the outcomes of what they have supported to date.