Capital Campaign Sputtering!


An Interview with John A. Martin, CFRE

This issue of The Martin Letter is the fourth in a series of interviews with practitioners in the field of philanthropy. Our Editor interviewed John Martin, President & Managing Partner for MGI Fund Raising Consulting, Inc., on the subject of Capital Campaigns. Martin identified some common mistakes that can cause a campaign to sputter and, ultimately, fail.

Q: What most commonly causes capital campaigns to fail?

A: Too many organizations fail to do the pre-campaign planning that is so vital to the campaign’s ultimate success. They regard the feasibility study and pre-planning phases as a waste of time and money. But the feasibility study is key because it answers the question, “Where do we go from here?” And careful pre-planning ensures there are clear guidelines for creating a compelling case for support of the organization and the campaign. You need to know how to engage your board and other volunteer leaders, and what roles each person will play. You need to have a target goal and strategies for reaching it. You need to know what additional staff and financial resources are required. Armed will all that information, you will be positioned to engage your most important constituents in thinking along with you about the impact of a successful campaign on your organization and the people it serves.

Q: What is the number one mistake organizations make with their capital campaigns?

A: Not asking for a large enough leadership gift at the top of the gift range table. Many campaign planners now presume that top level gifts will be smaller than leadership gifts received by the organization in the past. Do not downsize top gift expectations until they are tried and proven to be too high. With many prospects, we do not know yet which assets have been affected in what manner, so making assumptions could be a mistake. Use enhanced recognition options, gift matches and challenges, or planned giving tools to raise the level of the top gift. It is much easier to raise one large gift in this economy than many small ones!

Q: Is there a right number of prospects an organization must identify before launching a capital campaign?

A: There is no exact number. The key is identifying and cultivating enough prospects to meet your needs. Any campaign will absolutely need to identify new prospects. First, it’s important to make sure that current donors are being treated well. Then invest in some prospect research techniques, including new ones like electronic prospect screening. Do not dismiss older, more personal methods of screening, like holding screening and rating sessions with supporters. Carry a prospect list to all meetings and ask donors to review it—you can never tell when someone close to you will have a connection to a distant prospect.

Q: I have heard you say that “choosing the wrong leadership is the number one reason campaigns fail.” What do you mean by that?

A: Weak leadership from board and/or campaign leaders can doom a campaign. Now is the time for board and campaign leaders to stand up and be counted. Leaders need to take charge by addressing key financial issues, cutting back if necessary, and taking part in the reassessment of the campaign. This also means ensuring they give to their level of capability and continuing to ask them to open the door to others who can give. Board members should be part of the solution– inform them, involve them, and give them important tasks to do.

Q: What are common mistakes organizations make when asking for gifts?

A: There are quite a few. First, asking too soon. Some organizations have a short-term approach to cultivation and campaign giving. They roll through prospect lists like a steamroller, extracting the gifts that are easily available and balking at donors with more complex demands. Take time to cultivate. There is a better chance of getting a higher gift level if the prospect truly understands your needs. Do not rush large gifts. It may be more important to wait and get a big gift next year than to close a small one right now.

Second, not asking at all. We have all seen campaigns that never get to the point. A prospect is cultivated, cultivated, and cultivated without an ask ever being made. This is not respectful to the needs of the organization, to the volunteers, or even to the donor. Decide when enough is enough, and cut to the chase. Making an ask can be tough, but spending all that time and money on a prospect with nothing to show for it is just not proactive.

And third, not closing the solicitation once it has been made. Organizations should work with volunteers, staff, and executive director/ CEO on their skills, especially in asking for and closing a gift. Too many solicitors lose their focus during the last segment of a solicitation call and fail to get a gift closed. There are real techniques to learn here, so plan a workshop or do role playing to bring everyone up to speed. After investing so much in getting a prospect to the point of an ask, do not let your staff or volunteers fail when it comes time to close the gift.

Q: What else do organizations tend to get wrong?

A: Taking donors for granted once a gift is closed is a common error. Treating current donors well means more than writing a thank-you letter. Keep donors informed and involved, and they will keep giving back. It costs much less to return to a prior donor for a gift than it does to find, cultivate and solicit a new prospect. Implement a strong stewardship program and it will pay you back many times over.

Some organizations make the mistake of going back to the same donors over and over. If you are only soliciting prior donors, your organization will die on the vine. New constituents are the lifeblood of any organization. If you cannot figure out how to reach new groups, consider developing a partnership with another organization in your community that has the kind of audience you would like to reach. Offer to trade lists, to combine asks, or to develop programs together to cement your partnership. Be creative about outreach to younger donors; try social-networking or viral campaigns to broaden your base.

Q: Are there other things than can derail a campaign?

A: Not energizing your constituents at all levels on your behalf. If your campaign needs are truly urgent, your constituents at all levels need to share that sense of urgency. Create energy for a campaign by harnessing new electronic communication methods like interactive websites and social networking, developing public events to showcase your services, and creating a new PR plan to build support for your cause. Find ways to get people talking about your organization and create a buzz.

Another one is not developing a strong enough case to show why you need the money. It can be surprising how weak some campaigns are when it comes to making their case. “Because we need it,” is not a case. “We are doing good work,” is not a case. Make sure that your case answers questions like these: Why should I give? What are the needs I can give to? How urgent are these needs? What will happen if I do not give now? What impact will my gift have? Spend more time sharpening your case to stand out in the crowd and fundraising will improve exponentially.

About the Author
John Martin has more than 30 years experience in the not-for profit field, on both the organizational and consulting sides. Through his consulting work with clients seeking counsel for major capital and endowment campaigns, Mr. Martin has earned a reputation as one of North America's top strategists for the not-for-profit sector. His brash mix of social concern and aggressive business smarts has helped raised hundreds of millions of dollars for colleges, hospitals, human service organizations and arts and cultural groups throughout North America. John Martin was chosen the 2007 Professional Fund Raiser. He can be reached via email: