As I was in the midst of writing this article, my wife entered the room modeling a dress she thought would be perfect for an upcoming special event. She asked my opinion. I looked her up and down, examined the garment, and then suggested that it might be a bit too dressy for the event. When will I ever learn?

It wasn’t the first time she had rejected what I had to say. Nor is she the only one to ever do so. As someone who has been asked by nonprofit organizations to produce campaign feasibility studies, I’m familiar with what often happens when you tell people what they don’t want to hear.

We perform feasibility studies to determine whether to go ahead with major fundraising campaigns such as capital or endowment. A feasibility study is essential for an organization in order to assess the likelihood of success before entering into a campaign. An organization that doesn’t conduct a feasibility study puts at risk the campaign, the project for which the money is to be raised, and sometimes even the organization itself.

Things You Don’t Want to Hear from
Your Feasibility Study but Need to

It’s a sad fact however that all too often when a finished feasibility study is presented to an organization, board members and staff leadership balk. They resist implementing the recommendations simply because they find themselves being told what they don’t want to hear. It’s hard to believe that the friends of their organization—people they themselves put forth as knowledgeable and caring about the organization—may be critical of the organization’s operation and their leadership.

To those leaders, let me say, I understand. I know where you’re coming from, and I empathize. However your unwillingness to accept perceptions in opposition to your own and the evidence that supports them is not only counterproductive, it endangers your organization.

Remember, you suggested that those people be interviewed in the first place. You knew they cared and supported your organization or had influence in the community you serve. It’s you who wanted their input and placed value on it because of their position in the community and relationship to and understanding of your organization.

The study provided you with their thoughts, perspectives, and recommendations. Rejecting it out of hand or with thinly veiled defensiveness does your organization no good. You must give serious consideration to what they said. And you must make sure that you take the time to go over every element of the study. Don’t skip over any negative observations because your first reading left you with the sense that they were minor. Be even tougher in your analysis than those who assembled the findings and wrote the report.

When it comes to deciding whether or not to go ahead with a campaign, you must give credence to the thoughts, perspectives, and recommendations you solicited. It would be folly to take the time to conduct a planning study, spend the money on it, and then risk alienating people important to the organization by ignoring their input.

 Swallowing That Bitter Pill

An organization that ignores some or all of a study’s findings makes a mistake that can fatally damage the campaign, the project, and even the organization. The study might recommend against proceeding with a fundraising effort until the organization first repairs the real and perceived faults enumerated. It might recommend that before proceeding with a campaign you install new elements of basic infrastructure such as an updated strategic plan; a better defined mission; or a strengthened board. It is at your own risk that you ignore carrying out feasibility study recommendations or act upon them with less than the diligence they require.

If a study’s results tell you it’s better not to start a campaign at this time, then don’t. Postponing or even giving up on a project is a far better outcome than a failed campaign. A campaign that fails not only harms the project that is the reason for its existence, it saps an organization’s strength and weakens its ability to fundraise in the future.

Being told that now is not the time for a campaign is a tough pill to swallow, but swallow you must. Better to make the decision not to go ahead with a campaign in the relative privacy of a board meeting, than endure a public failure with all its debilitating ramifications. A failed campaign reflects negatively on an organization’s:

  • Campaign leadership
  • Campaign volunteers
  • Board
  • Staff
  • Image and perceived competency

A failed campaign makes it harder for future campaigns to succeed. People give to organizations they perceive to be competent. The best volunteer leadership for both fundraising endeavors and governance is drawn to organizations that are perceived to be winners.

 The Final Word on Feasibility Studies: Listen!

If a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, don’t blame the people you chose to be surveyed. Remember, they are people of affluence and influence. If you want them on your side in the future, don’t do them the disservice of ignoring them now. And for heaven’s sake, don’t blame the people who conducted the study. You need their honesty. I am still awaiting the final payment for a study from an organization that didn’t like what the 25 people they chose, and whom I interviewed had to say.

And there’s one more important don’t. Don’t try to hide the results of an unfavorable study. I once had to fight tooth and nail to get an organization’s executive director and president to share the results of a study with their own board – something they had promised to do at the outset. The more negative a study’s results, the more important that they be heeded. You need to own bad results, no matter how painful, just as much as you want to own good results.

So, listen to, and act upon, what your organization’s family and friends tell you. Fix what must be fixed, explain what can’t be fixed, and at least acknowledge and explain impressions and opinions that may be mistaken.

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