Capital Campaign Feasibility Studies Remixed
Before you trot happily down the path of setting a great big fundraising goal for your capital campaign, you have to test your plans with your largest donors. That’s where feasibility studies, or campaign planning studies as they are sometimes called, come in.
The traditional model for these studies involves hiring a campaign consulting firm to interview your top donors to test their inclination and readiness to make a significant gift to support the proposed project.
It’s Crucial To Have a Capital Campaign Feasibility Study
Feasibility studies accomplish several important things:
- They invite an organization’s most important donors to share their views about the organization and the proposed plan.
- They test the case for supporting the project, unearthing both strengths and weaknesses that the organization should be aware of.
- A positive study report gives the board confidence that the campaign could be successful.
As a capital campaign expert and a former campaign consultant, I’ve been struggling with the traditional model for quite some time. I’ve written about it before. But until now, I haven’t come up with a solution that I believe works.
3 Reasons Feasibility Studies Need a New Model
Here are the things about traditional feasibility studies that have pushed me to work on developing a new model.
1. Donor criticism shared with consultants can be unproductive.
I believe that building strong donor relationships should be the job of the leaders of the organization. The feasibility study interviews provide a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
Traditional campaign consultants believe that donors won’t share openly and honestly with the leaders of an organization their concerns about the project and the organization. Consultants argue that their outsider status and the promise of confidentiality opens up paths to a more honest and forthright conversation.
Here’s the problem with that way of thinking…
When outside consultants find out that a donor has serious concerns about the organization, they can factor those concerns into their report. However, because the concerns were shared with them in confidence, the consultant can’t tell the organization’s leadership about the concern and encourage her to contact the donor to discuss and resolve the issue. To make matters worse, in sharing his or her concern about the organization with the consultant, the donor has reinforced that concern.
But when the interview is conducted by the executive director or a board member who has been trained to draw out just such concerns, the donor’s concern is the beginning of a conversation that can address and perhaps resolve the problem.
Organizational leaders can be trained to conduct deep, meaningful conversations that include both positive and negative views. When they do, those discussions, because they include areas of concern and challenge, deepen the relationship between the donor and the organization in a way that few other conversations can.
2. Campaign goal recommendations should be transparent.
When consultants conduct a feasibility study, they invite the people they interview to share, in confidence, what they might contribute to the proposed campaign. While consultants do not make a specific ask, they are evaluating the giving potential of every donor with whom they speak.
In some cases, the lead donors are not willing to participate in interviews with consultants. Without the input of the top potential donors, the feasibility study results are bound to be disappointing.
And, to make matters worse, consultants often find themselves in the awkward position of speaking with donors who know little about the project. When donors who know little about the project are asked how much they are likely to give, the response is likely to be low. And just like the negative comments they might have shared, those low estimates are likely to plant themselves in the donors’ minds and eventually lead to undersized campaign gifts.
As a result, consultants often determine a campaign goal based on incomplete and inaccurate findings. But that’s difficult for the organization to evaluate, because the specific findings of the individual interviews are held in confidence, and input they use to assess the goal is not fully shared with the client.
On the other hand, when the interviews are conducted by the organization’s leaders, there is a greater chance they will be able to meet with more — even most — of the largest potential donors. And when they do, they can have an open conversation about the project and the potential for funding. Then, the findings and recommendations can be determined in a way that is fully transparent.
3. Building the board’s confidence in the feasibility of the campaign requires expertise.
Having an experienced consultant make recommendations to the board about the campaign goal builds confidence that the organization really can undertake a successful campaign. This is, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons to involve a consultant in the process.
Most board members have little campaign experience and are appropriately anxious at the prospect of having to raise a great deal more money than their organization has ever raised before. So board members count on having an experienced professional tell them that the campaign goal is feasible. Without that outside assessment, the campaign may seem like a fool’s errand.
In most traditional feasibility studies, the consultant prepares an extensive report for the board. Consultant reports highlight strengths and weaknesses and discuss a wide variety of findings. Some consultant reports include charts and graphs and are presented in elegant binders.
I have often wondered how important the bells and whistles in these lengthy, but elegant, reports really are. While some of the information is valuable, the critical information in the report is the consultant’s assessment of how much the campaign is likely to be able to raise. Toward the end of my consulting career, I found that my clients were happy — even thrilled — with short reports that simply spelled out the most important information.
A Blended Approach: Guided Feasibility Studies
In my new model for feasibility studies, I’ve explored combining the expertise of a seasoned campaign expert with the capabilities of the organization’s leadership. The expert guides the process, trains the people doing the interviews, helps interpret the results and works with the organization’s leaders to draft a clear and simple report for the board. And then the expert co-presents the report to the board.
This new model encourages the organization’s leadership to use the study process to strengthen their relationships with their top donors. It makes the study findings and recommendations transparent, and it gives board members ample reason to be confident in the results.
Learn More About Guided Feasibility Studies
If you are interested in learning more about this new model for a guided feasibility study, please click here to contact me. I’d love to explain the process in further detail and help you decide if this approach would work best for your campaign.
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.