Why in heaven's name would you hire strangers to talk to your most valuable donors and volunteers? How do you know that a third party will represent you and your organization the way you wish to be seen? Will your prospects, donors, and volunteers really confide in someone they don't know?
These are the questions that many organizations are asking as they ponder paying for a feasibility study at the beginning of their fundraising campaigns. After all, you know your donors, right? Can't you just do the study yourself—and aren't you just itching for a chance to talk to your donors for real, and not just as part of an invented cultivation visit?
Besides, you know you want to go ahead with the campaign, and you wouldn't even be considering doing so if you thought you would fail. So what's this business about "feasibility"? If you've decided to do a campaign, and you know that you know what you're doing, ipso facto, your campaign is feasible. Right?
This is the viewpoint I've been reading and hearing about a lot in the past several months. At least once a month some organization asks me if they really need to hire consultants to conduct a feasibility study before their campaign. Why, they want to know, can't they do their own? Even some of my consultant friends are debating whether the studies are necessary.
There's another side to this debate. But first, full disclosure: During the course of my consulting career I conducted at least 40 feasibility studies, and I made a decent income from that work. But I'm no longer working as a campaign consultant, having turned my attention to writing, training, and speaking. In other words, I no longer have skin in the feasibility study game.
Imagine yourself as a board member of a successful organization in your city—a city where you have had a long, successful career. You're a good board member, and you want to be constructive and helpful in every way you can. But the leadership of your organization is proposing a large capital campaign, and you're not sure if it's possible to raise the amount of money required.
You don't want to be a naysayer, but you also don't want to risk your reputation on a failing effort. And you certainly don't want the personal and financial pressure that's likely to come your way if the campaign flounders.
How can you know the chances of success? You'd feel a whole lot better about the prospects of a campaign if a neutral party, rather than the board chair and/or executive director who is pushing the project, could evaluate the potential for success.
Just the other day I got a call from a board member in exactly this position. "I've had a very successful career in this city," he told me, "and I certainly don't want to cap it off by being on the board of an organization that has an unsuccessful capital campaign. Can you recommend a consulting firm that can help make sure we're on the right track?"
For this man and for many other board members, hiring an experienced consulting firm to assess the potential for success offers a modicum of safety. He and many other prospective donors will be able to share their concerns with the consultant in structured interviews.
The consultants won't divulge confidential information from any one interview, but they will share the collective results. And if they report that there's plenty of excitement and the potential for large gifts, then my concerned board member will happily put his full commitment behind the campaign. His concerns will be allayed, and he'll have the confidence to make a generous, early gift.
But if the consultants report that they haven't found enough donors who are likely to make the gifts needed to reach the proposed goal, my friend and the other board members will have concrete, unbiased information that will help them find a better way forward.
Mind you, these consultant-donor interviews aren't a substitute for other donor meetings in which you can talk about the proposed project; they are simply a reality check by an outside evaluator. Campaign consultants are effective because they are outsiders. No matter how well meaning or effective a board or staff member is, no one who is inside the system and already "pitching" can do as good a job assessing what might or might not be possible.
A recent blog post by the Suddes Group (ForImpact.org) rails against feasibility studies. Why, they ask, have a consultant talk to one of your donors about "a HYPOTHETICAL campaign with a HYPOTHETICAL goal and ask how much they would HYPOTHETICALLY give to this HYPOTHETICAL campaign?"
Even to me, when framed that way, the idea of hiring an outside consultant to talk with your most important donors about hypothetical plans seems a bit wimpy. Where's your strong leadership with the will, determination, and ability to inspire? I, too, like big and bold.
But just as you shouldn't dive into a pool without knowing the depth of the water, even with the most inspired and committed leadership, it's foolish to undertake a major fundraising campaign without first testing the depth of your donors' resources and commitment to what you are proposing. Hypothetical, perhaps, but wise nonetheless. For most organizations the stakes are too high to throw caution to the winds.
If you're considering a capital campaign for your organization, spend the time and the money to hire an experienced consultant to help you evaluate your chances of success. You will ease your board members' minds. You will be able to fine-tune your plans to fit what is possible. And you will build the credibility and confidence you need for a successful campaign.
Andrea Kihlstedt© 2013, Andrea Kihlstedt
Andrea Kihlstedt has written three books, including Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work (3rd Edition) and How to Raise $1 Million (and More) in 10 Bite-Sized Steps. She co-developed the Web site capitalcampaignmagic.com with Gail Perry. Andrea now speaks and trains groups large and small about fundraising, motivation, and commitment.
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