11 Pitfalls That Will Derail Your Campaign Planning Study
You, no doubt, know my feelings on campaign feasibility and planning studies. I’ve written about them many times. But to recap: They are essential, so don’t set out on your campaign without first having completed one.
Like anything in our profession, a study should be conducted properly — with excellence! Conducted improperly, they can slow down, misdirect or even derail your campaign.
We share with clients that if they embrace the process and are seriously committed to securing wise counsel, regardless of the campaign potential identified, the study is one of the best investments they can make.
There is a lot of conversation about campaign planning studies. One reason is that, unfortunately, too many are conducted improperly. We believe so strongly in a study done correctly that we won’t provide campaign counsel without one. Without that research to develop the proper campaign plan, you are not following a roadmap and are embracing a cookie-cutter or other non-strategic approaches.
Here are 11 pitfalls that can severely damage the effectiveness of campaign research, poison your results and derail your campaign:
1. Not Genuinely Seeking Insight or Being Open to Accepting It
A planning and feasibility study is a vital step in proper planning toward a campaign. Your goals and approach must flow from a strategic planning process, master planning process and other planning steps, and you should stay open to fine-tuning based on evolving research. Stay tuned into the research, and be nimble enough to react when changes are merited.
I always see organizations benefit from suggestions or questions that come from the study planning process. First as the case is further vetted, and then through interviews and focus groups. These are valid points that help improve your plans — they should be embraced! You must be willing to genuinely listen to the advice that surfaces in your planning. It’s coming from some of the brightest people and your biggest supporters. It makes your organization and your plans better!
2. Not Being Confidential
In decades of studying and conducting planning studies, I can say with certainty that it is essential for the conversations conducted during campaign research to remain confidential. Study participants should know their insight is confidential and that you will honor that promise. I am amazed at what leaders — even board chairs — will share about an organization and its leadership in the desire to improve it if they feel their comments are confidential.
I have also been so disappointed in our profession when I hear of consultants who pledge confidentiality, and then share everything with their client in an obvious ethical lapse. This damages the impact of this planning vehicle and our noble profession.
This means that a study cannot be conducted properly, without bias, by a staff member or with a staff member accompanying a consultant during confidential study interviews. It doesn’t mean that staff should not be in front of prospective donors on a regular basis asking questions — yes, sometimes asking some of the same questions a consultant might eventually ask in a study setting.
But thinking you can conduct interviews internally violates the essential premise in any research — and a properly conducted study is research. Avoiding bias is essential. Bias is, indeed, the enemy of research.
3. Not Having the Right Discernment or Having Bias
You have seen it, and so have I, too many times. A volunteer or staff member hears someone say something, but they don’t really hear what they said. They are poor listeners. Or they have a bias. Not everyone makes a good study interviewer. You are there to listen, not to sell.
It’s essential that any study be conducted by the right individuals. It is our practice to have at least two of our consultants engaged in interviews for each study to avoid any bias and to benefit from the synergy in collaboration on conclusions and recommendations.
4. Improper Experience in the Nonprofit World
I am dismayed at the number of consultants who have weak experience in raising money (or running a nonprofit). A consultant who conducts study interviews and weighs in on strategy should have experience as a nonprofit staff leader in major campaigns.
A big plus, too, is insight gained from being a nonprofit board member as well, but the staff experience is essential. You need a breadth and depth of successful campaign experience on your project to be able to have the appropriate discernment and resulting strategy.
5. Improper Training
Learning the nuances of a study is important. It’s not something to pick up just by reading a blog or a book. There should be a thorough educational process for consultants who are engaged in a study. This should include internal resources, such as guides or manuals, as well as benchmarking interviews where they accompany a peer.
6. Being in a Fundraising Mode
Study participants know — and don’t like it — when you ask for their insight on a project, but you come to the interview with fundraising on your mind.
For example, when your case asks for money. It gives the impression that you don’t really want their advice. The study must be done at the right time when you can benefit from the leaders’ insight.
7. Not Looping Back With Participants
When some of your organization’s best friends and strongest and potential supporters share their confidential insights and take time to prepare by reviewing a prospectus, they deserve to know what you have learned. Share a summary with participants — keeping individual input confidential — so they can know that they were heard and are valued. And so they have a sense of your next steps.
8. Not Following Study Recommendations
As my own incredible coach shares, if a client does not follow a consultant’s recommendations, they are no better off than they were without the consultant. If you undertake a study process that is properly conducted — and proceed according to what the research reveals — I guarantee you that incredible things will happen.
9. Not Being Fully Engaged in the Study Process
The CEO especially must be involved — actively involved — in the study process. We have found a direct correlation between their involvement and their success in fundraising. Effective CEOs know that one of their most important roles is fundraising and developing deep relationships.
10. Selecting the Wrong Interviewees for the Study
An organization should always know their top prospective donors. Ensuring that your research includes the best people and produces the most useful information means maintaining relationships with these top donors.
Unfortunately, we’ve interviewed top donors who haven’t been engaged with a “new” CEO, even years into their tenure; top donors who the organization had let slip away; and members of the organization’s hand-picked inner circle who were not truly their top prospects.
11. Not Preparing Years in Advance
You should have an idea of a horizon for a potential campaign. This means being engaged in planning years in advance, refining your messaging, re-thinking projects, validating the need and outcomes, honing your lists of top prospective donors and deepening relationships. Studies done without proper preparation nearly always fall far, far short of their potential.
Feasibility and planning studies are crucial precursors to any major campaign. More than precursors, they are essential elements of any campaign. Conduct a study properly, and great things will happen. I stand by that promise!
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.