3 Board Members Make a Collective $1M—What Could Go Wrong?
You’re planning a capital campaign to raise somewhere between $6 and $10 million. It’s based on a design of a building plan that’s just been finished. The costs are still a stab in the dark and it’ll take some time to estimate the real numbers.
But on their way out of the meeting when the new building design was approved, three enthusiastic board members decided they wanted to make a big gesture of support. One agreed to give $500,000 if they other two would each give $250,000, getting to the first million of the campaign.
Board Members Make a Big Capital Campaign Gift—A Blessing or Curse?
Your board members’ intention was to give the nascent campaign a big boost even before the real goal was set and the campaign plan was in place.
One of the trio called you that evening and told you what had happened. “Guess what … ! Your campaign has its first $1 million.”
Should you be overjoyed? Or, do you have a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that this spontaneous gesture is not the way you want to start your campaign?
Premature Board Gifts: 2 Main Problems
The story I’ve described above is not uncommon.
In this particular instance, the director of the organization, Joan, has a problem and she knows it! The board members who committed to the first million are the people on her board who have the greatest philanthropic potential. They led the charge on the new building project and other board members usually follow their lead.
Here are the problems…
1. The gift isn’t based on the goal.
No one yet knows how much the project will cost and what the goal of the campaign will be. So a lead commitment of $1 million sets a standard for giving that isn’t based on a working goal for a campaign.
If the campaign goal winds up being $10 million (which is likely), a gift of $1 million won’t come close to being the amount needed to set the giving standard.
2. Collective gifts undershoot the potential.
The eager board members picked a goal for their gift that sounded impressive and made a big gesture. But chances are, each of those board members might be able to make a much larger gift if approached individually.
Keep in mind that the board members decided on their collective gift of $1 million over the course of a few minutes while walking from the board meeting to the parking lot. Clearly, their commitments didn’t require a great deal of planning or soul searching. They were relatively easy gifts.
If you are a cynic—a stance I don’t favor—you may wonder if the board members made their collective gift in order to ward off being asked for larger gifts.
What Can Be Done?
Joan is in a sticky spot.
On one hand she’s got to fully appreciate the gesture of her board members and the immediate enthusiasm that lead to it.
On the other hand she’s got to keep their premature, collective commitment from setting a low standard of giving for the campaign.
Here’s what I suggest…
First things first‚ she should call the board member who told her about the gift and find out exactly what happened. Who came up with the idea? How did the $1 million goal come about? And how were the other two board members brought in?
Knowing just what happened—who said what to whom—may give her some insight into motivations and intent.
She should deal with the situation as quickly as possible to minimize the potential damage. She does not want to have these board members announce the gift in their enthusiasm.
She has three choices about how to proceed:
Option 1: She could talk with the instigating board member.
Option 2: She could meet with the three three board members together.
Option 3: She could ask the board member who called her to talk to the others.
Her decision about which of these options to follow will be determined by the personalities of the board members and her relationships with each of them.
Whatever the approach, Joan must do these five things...
Whichever approach Joan chooses for starting the conversation, she’ll want to accomplish the following things in her meeting.
She should thank and appreciate them for their enthusiasm and early commitment to the project.
She should enlist their help in leading the way forward in the quiet phase of the campaign.
She should give them the context they need to understand the consequences of their leadership. They have to understand the importance of knowing the dollar goal of their campaign before talking about their gifts. They must understand what the quiet phase of a campaign is and the importance of not broadcasting their giving and the campaign too soon.
She should show them the sizes of gifts that will be required for campaigns of different scales so they begin to see more clearly where their gifts will fit in a larger campaign goal.
Finally, she should enlist them in helping to plan the upcoming campaign. By making them part of the campaign planning team, she’ll put them in a position of responsibility for the success of the campaign.
Board Members: Handle With Care
Joan is in a sensitive situation with these board members.
She must be careful to let them know how much she appreciates their enthusiastic and early support. But at the same time, she’s got to tamp down their eagerness to make a statement — because the gesture they are making with their million dollar gift is likely to get the campaign off on the wrong foot.
Capital campaigns often require careful thinking and finesse when it comes to the largest donors and most powerful board members. How you do that can make all the difference between a successful and a failed campaign.
What would you do in Joan’s situation? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Andrea Kihlstedt is an innovative leader and expert in capital campaign fundraising. She wrote "Capital Campaigns: Strategies That Work (4th ed)," often referred to as the “bible” of capital campaign fundraising. She founded Capital Campaign Masters and co-founded Capital Campaign Toolkit, an online capital campaign resource and platform.