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.
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.
Thank you, very insightful!
Melissa, thank you. To augment what you learned from the “In The Beginning” article, I do feel confident that a reading and implementing of the suggestions and assertions in the following articles, may help you turn the corner for certain, and sooner. These, not only for possible new board members, but for those already in place.
— How Board Members Can Become Effective Fund-Raisers
— Who Should Raise The Money From Within Your Organization?
— Develop Your Fund-Raising Plan With Consensus
And do look over the many other articles which run close parallel to what the board can do directly to make their fund-raising a priority.
Thanks so much for this article. I became executive director a year and a half ago for a new non-profit organization with no fundraising plan. I tried to get the Board involved in fundraising, and basically their reply was, "no, you do it." I tried to do it on my own and got discouraged that I didn't have more success. Thanks to your article, I am hopeful that if I make finding new Board members (who are willing to help fund-raise) a priority, with planning we will be able to raise the funds we need to move forward.
Donna: We begin with knowing the two strongest tools board members must have
If board members are to raise money, they need to know and be committed to the organization. Knowledge and commitment are the two strongest tools anyone asking for a gift can have, and they go hand in hand. Knowing the organization is crucial to fund-raising, but without commitment that knowledge is worthless. Words spoken in support of a cause in which you do not believe have a hollow ring to them. Without knowledge you can’t present an organization’s case to prospective donors, and without true commitment your efforts will yield severely diminished results.
Commitment is something that can be determined in the recruitment process and then built upon as an individual serves. Yes, sometimes people will seem to have commitment that they don’t. But most of the time we can tell who really cares. Knowledge of the organization is something that can and should be imparted to board members throughout their tenure. An organization needs more than the obligatory orientation session for board members. An ongoing process of board education and awareness-building is needed.
Then, staff or knowledgeable volunteer leadership must provide Board members with a fund-raising “road map.” Those directions, plans and tools, are provided in my article:
— How Board Members Can Become Effective Fund-Raisers
Very insightful into why certain non-profits are able to raise a substantial amount of money and others are not. The question becomes if you work for a non-profit whose leadership does not feel the necessity to raise funds, how do you overcome your lack of leadership from the board? Are there any mechanisms that can be put into place to counteract this problem.
Haven’t read it thoroughly, but it really looks good. When I have time later this week I will read the whole thing carefully and let you know better what I think.