All fund-raising campaigns must begin with a realization that the organization needs money, usually voiced to the person charged with fund-raising as, “We need to raise $________.” The amount varies, but once accepted it becomes the Goal. Whether the effort is to be the regular clockwork of an annual campaign or a one-shot designed to raise money for a specific, non-recurring purpose, it begins and ends with the goal. Success or failure is measured incrementally by how far above or below goal the campaign finishes.

The first step in setting the goal is to look at the resources you plan to tap and see if they can meet the stated need. Even organizations with modest contributed income needs will find the following example of this principle instructive. Once at a board meeting of The Cleveland Orchestra, an influential and highly respected trustee got up and said, “What we need is more endowment. We ought to have a $20 million endowment campaign.” Sitting there, hearing that declaration made with no justification, and no warning, I was in no position, as Director of Development, to show any reaction, however subtle—that we should and could raise that significant amount, or that such a goal was not possible. My inside emotions were another thing, as I said to myself, “Oh no!” But it was to be yes! The suggestion was made, after all, by a trustee of great influence and affluence, and all heads nodded in agreement with him as expected.

Not the Best Way to Set a Goal

In the end, the goal we decided on was $12 million, not $20 million. An assessment of our prospective donors, even when we put down the greatest amounts we could imagine receiving from our strongest benefactors, showed that $20 million was too ambitious. This was not a campaign which we had conducted before, and even to raise $12 million was a formidable challenge.

Would those of us who had the responsibility for managing the campaign rather have had a less intimidating number for our goal? You bet. But, how do you tell your boss that something his or her boss had decided is imperative can’t be done? You don’t, unless you are absolutely, one-hundred percent sure and have the evidence to back your argument. Even then, the risk is high. Development officers are paid to see to it that the money is raised, not to explain why it can’t be raised. So you look for ways to accomplish what you are asked to do, and then determine whether the goal needs to be modified.

Know Your Best Chances for Success

In the case of an annual campaign you look to last year’s results. Who were the major donors and at what level did they give? How many of them have died or left town? Will the ones who remain, give at the same level or higher? Do you have a list of prospects from which to draw new donors? Are there board members and volunteers ready to step forward and lead the campaign this year?

If the campaign—its purpose and plan—has not been executed previously, if it doesn’t have a history, you are starting from ground zero, and that’s tougher. Will people who have supported your other fund-raising efforts support this campaign with additional money? (It does no good to move money from one pocket to another.) Will the purpose of this campaign garner you support from new givers? Again, do you have the volunteer leadership in place to make this campaign a success?

Toughest of all is when your organization has absolutely no demonstrated base of support. We’re not talking about launching a new campaign, but about an organization that has never conducted a fund-raising campaign of any kind. Now you must base your assessment, not on your organization’s experience, but rather on the ways in which your community has supported other organizations. Most crucial of all, you must assess whether your board can be counted on for fund-raising leadership. Something you have never asked of them before.

Leadership is the key element in determining the goal or deciding whether you should even conduct a campaign. Be it this year’s edition of the annual campaign, a first-time attempt to raise endowment, or a first-ever fund-raising effort, leadership is what will make or break your campaign.

A Missed Opportunity

A new arts organization brought me in to design an annual fund-raising campaign that would support its exhibitions. I provided a plan and the tools (you’ll see many plans and tools on my website) to conduct a successful campaign. The board committed to the concept, even praised it. About halfway through the campaign the board members asked me to come to a special meeting. The meeting revolved around the fact that so far in the campaign they had failed to meet their goals, something we knew from ongoing progress meetings. They were going to have to postpone their inaugural exhibition, and they wanted me to know what was going wrong.

It was simple. The trustees had talked the talk, but hadn’t walked the walk. When left on their own, they had proved unready and unwilling to pick up the fund-raising tools they had praised and use them to execute a plan they had approved. Each board member was sitting back on his or her heels waiting for someone else to raise the money. All the ingredients were in place except one—leadership. A good plan, an agreed-upon plan, in a community known for giving to such causes had failed. In the end, everything hinged on leadership, and that leadership just did not come through.

Getting the Job Done

In another instance, I was consulted about eight months into a fund-raising campaign for a new building for a social service agency. The agency was well respected, well known, and trying to raise several million dollars. Here, there was a board ready and willing to provide the leadership for a campaign. I was there because the board realized that even with all their commitment they weren’t getting the job done. With groundbreaking already eight months behind them, they had only raised $500,000. Time was slipping away; they were losing the impetus and sense of immediacy that a construction project brings to prospective donors. My mission was to pull together a better working plan and provide the tools of a fund-raising campaign. I was being asked to build the engine of a campaign. I did, the board embraced it, they raised the money, and finished the building.

The Solution

In both these campaigns something had gone wrong. The social service agency had a committed leadership, but lacked the tools, while the arts organization had all the tools in front of it but had not used them. In both situations the solution was simple. The social service agency’s board needed only a workable plan and well-designed tools. The arts organization’s board needed to step forward and lead. Once a campaign has begun it is still possible for a development officer or consultant to provide better fund-raising tools, but if there is failure in leadership, the solution must come from within that leadership. The organization’s board has to reach into itself and find the will and commitment to lead a campaign.

It All Starts With the Board of Trustees

There is no greater strength in a fund-raising campaign than a board ready and willing to lead. There is no greater weakness than one which sees fund-raising as someone else’s responsibility.

So that’s where you start the process of a fund-raising campaign—with your board. You have to have their commitment to be fund-raisers and to recruit additional volunteer fund-raisers. (Do your board members have a job description which includes the words, “… will lead fund-raising campaigns and actively solicit gifts?”) It is their leadership that will make or break a campaign. They are the ones an organization will draw upon to establish a campaign committee and to make or find lead gifts.

When it comes to fund-raising campaigns you need an attainable goal, a plan for getting to that goal, and the tools to execute that plan. But in the end, the success or failure of a fund-raising campaign hinges on leadership, and that leadership starts on your board.

Remember That It’s More Than Money

We can all agree that fund-raising for non-profit organizations is more than money. We know that non-profit organizations are all about people saved and served, animals rescued and sheltered, the environment preserved and protected, and many other worthy causes. However, we can readily understand that the concern to raise the funds to sustain those organizations often has that effort become the front and center issue and talk is often mostly in dollars—much as was necessary for this article to be written. But, we must never let the need for money obscure, or put far into the background, our organization’s reason for being—its mission.