A Nonprofit Feasibility and Planning Study Is Essential in Fulfilling Your Campaign Potential
Early in my career, I inherited a campaign. It had long been stalled and was poorly planned, with no nonprofit feasibility and planning study. It should have been quietly closed out, but we had to cross the finish line. It was a struggle. It was not energizing, motivating or fun for anyone involved—staff, donors or volunteers. It did not create momentum or build confidence in the organization.
A few years later, after building a pipeline of major donors, the same CEO wanted to embark on another campaign. I insisted on a study. Every book I had read, every conference I had been to, every successful fundraising professional that I spoke with said that a study was an essential step toward a successful campaign—a campaign that reached its full potential.
The CEO and I interviewed several firms and selected Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners.
Our consultant, Dr. Brent Kennedy, quickly became a good friend and mentor. The study provided invaluable insight, and we took this information and fine-tuned our plans.
The result was—for the same institution just a few years apart—a campaign that soared!
The campaign created enthusiasm and momentum. The thoughtful, strategic approach built confidence among staff, volunteers and donors. We far exceeded our goal and had to quickly embark on a planning process to identify the projects that we would add.
Later, working for Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, I repeatedly saw the incredible insights from a properly conducted study and benefits of the study process itself. When I returned to an in-house nonprofit role, I insisted that we conduct a study for any major project.
Having led scores of studies and conducted thousands of study interviews and focus groups, I am more convinced than ever.
Now, our firm won’t provide counsel to any campaign where we did not conduct the study. Experience has taught us that the firm that conducts the study is best positioned to lead the campaign. Relationships between the consultant, staff and donors are established during the study, and valuable insight is often lost when a different firm comes in for the campaign. As counsel, you—and only you—learn incredible confidential insight from those you visit with. Just as important, you learn about the competence and ability of the staff to lead and support a campaign.
A study is an accepted and vital step toward a major campaign. It shows you where you are—and how to get to where you want to be. Knowing where you are can be intimidating, but it is a reality check. It is important to know.
Several times I have heard a CEO say, “I know what my donors are thinking.” Most of the time, that simply isn’t true. I am continually amazed at what prospective major donors—even board leaders—will share with a promise of confidentiality.
Organizations from the Kresge Foundation to the National Park Service reinforce the importance of studies. A study is similar to doing market research before launching a product or business. So often we hear from savvy donors, “We are glad that the organization is making this investment and taking the right steps to be prepared and maximize success.”
Here are some key thoughts on preparing and conducting a study as well as the incredible benefits.
Preparation is key
- Have concepts developed for your prospective campaign—ideally, these come out of a strategic planning process.
- Have sufficient qualified prospects to achieve much of your goal. Without this you are better off engaging in an intensive cultivation period and then revisiting the study when you are truly ready.
- Have board and staff leadership who understand key fundraising principles—including the importance of a study and a properly executed campaign.
Following are some points to consider to ensure the study is properly conducted:
- The CEO must be engaged in the process.
- The organization has the resources—financial, staffing, time—to ensure success in the study but also in the potential campaign to follow. This means having funds for the study and a method to finance campaign counsel—operations, reserves, gifts from lead donors for capacity-building, etc.
- The organization can provide information including outcomes and compelling stories for case development.
- Interviews are conducted in a confidential setting with only the consultant and prospective major donors to enable candid conversation. We prefer to use two consultants for the study interviews as a safeguard against any bias and to provide a stronger, collaborative approach in discerning conclusions and recommendations.
- Spouses are included in the interviews as appropriate.
- Donors believe that the information they share is confidential.
- Consultants maintain their pledge of confidentiality.
- Consultants who have the experience as well as discernment to draw the correct conclusions and make strategic recommendations.
The benefits of a properly conducted study are many. It can:
- Deepen the organization’s culture of philanthropy and enhance board and staff understanding of key fundraising principles.
- Provide cultivation since people want to be “on the inside” and for their opinions to be sought; they want to be “a worthwhile member of a worthwhile group.”
- Build donor confidence in seeing an organization take strategic steps and planning properly.
- Build internal consensus on goals and future projects.
- Provide the benefit from the counsel of some of your best (and wisest) supporters.
- Test concepts and messaging that will be used in the campaign and allow you to adjust them before even asking for the first gift.
- Give you a sense for how donor-centered your messaging is and help you get rid of internal language and jargon to clarify messaging.
- Uncover questions donors have, what they don’t understand and don’t like—as well as what resonates.
- Show a sign of strength, making leaders more willing to listen.
- Provide a benchmark of an appropriate goal. Campaigns that drag on forever or do not reach goal do not build confidence and deepen a culture of philanthropy.
- Help board members more fully understand their role in fundraising and begin to think of their own commitments.
- Alert key donors to the idea that you most likely will be in a campaign so they can begin to integrate this into their gift planning.
- Test the leadership of senior staff and board.
- Test the ability of staff to support a campaign.
- Identify the willingness of volunteers to serve in a campaign role.
- Identify the perceived strength of the organization, its mission, leadership and programs—all of which are essential to securing major gifts.
- Uncover untapped potential (ability to overachieve goals or interest in other projects) and identify blind spots.
- Help board members feel confident in approving a major campaign.
- Provide you with insight that you otherwise would not have known.
A feasibility and planning study can be time-consuming and costly, and it will make demands on staff and budget. It is also, if conducted properly, one of the best investments you can make.
However, launching a campaign without one is like flying without a flight plan or navigation. A well conducted study leads to incredible results.
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.