Why Most Fundraising Campaigns Are Long-Term Failures
Some people are going to be upset when they read this.
The reason? They've invested their entire careers in campaigns, and for a bozo like me to come along and say that most campaigns are long-term failures is a sword thrust to their souls.
But I must say it. Here's why …
Jeff and I have been saying over and over again in this blog that the whole thing is about donors — getting them, keeping them, and loving and caring for them. It is about relationship. It is about life. It is not about one transaction. It is a long-term thing.
Key word: long-term.
By definition a campaign is a short-term event. There is a specific project and a time-limited, specific goal. And that's where, in most cases, the problem starts. I say "most cases" because I have met some fundraisers who have this right.
So, picture this. A major-gifts program is humming along experiencing double-digit growth from year to year, but because of budget pressures the manager decides the organization needs to have a campaign. So the manager hires these capital campaign folks to "do" the organization's operational campaign — a time-limited, specific-focus, specific-dollar campaign.
Now the major-gifts team is focused on making the campaign happen. So the major-gifts officers are talking to their caseload donors, not about an ongoing long-term relationship in this great cause, but about whether they will participate in this campaign with a gift of X or Y.
Here's where it gets real subtle, and unless you listen really well, you will not be able to hear the nuance that causes this whole thing to go bad. If you listen well, you hear that the language is about a transaction, not about a relationship. It is about filling a spot on a gift pyramid, not about this important cause. It is about when this all has to be done in order to reach goal, not about outcomes and lives changed.
OK, hold on. Stay with me. Yes, all the relationship, cause and outcomes language is buried in there, but it is really campaign dressing, not core messaging. It's very subtle, which is why it's hard to hear it. But that subtle language is seeping in to the relationship with your donor, believe me. And that is something to be very worried about.
All this is happening because a manager somewhere is focused on the campaign, the timeline and the goal. He or she is not focused on the donor, the cause or the outcomes.
In the retail world it's like having a big sales event so you can grab the one transaction vs. grabbing the customer. I know you have to do it — got to reach that quarterly target! But in the meantime you really haven't brought the customer into the house and loved and cared for her.
This is the tragic — very tragic — thing that is happening in a lot of campaigns. Some managers and board members are very aware of this dynamic. We had a nonprofit in Philadelphia approach us on this very subject.
The manager, a highly skilled, donor-sensitive professional, wanted to be sure that the capital campaign was intimately linked to an ongoing major donor program that was donor-focused. The stated reason: "so that the donors giving to the campaign will see they are a part of a living, ongoing program to support the cause we are both interested in." Brilliant!
I can't tell you how many times we have done donor file analysis for nonprofits around the country where we see a huge drop-off of donors and giving after a campaign because the organizers of the campaign thought it was about dollars and goals vs. donors and cause.
Oh sure, they raise millions for the campaign and everyone is all giddy about that, whacking themselves on the back, giving each other high fives, walking around all puffed up — yup, it's quite a high. And then the rest of life sets in, and the major-gifts officer and other fundraisers are left to pick up the future. Pretty depressing.
I have never been impressed with how many millions or multiple millions or zillions a campaign raises. Never. What impresses me is donor-value retention over the long term. That is real work. That is real accomplishment. That is discipline. Keep a donor over a long period of time and you really have accomplished something!
The thing is that very few nonprofits are really aware of how donor value is just slipping away year after year. To be clear, I am talking about analyzing and being in touch with dollar values from the same donors year after year. I am not talking about "body count," i.e., how many actual donors you have retained. Two different things.
So, next time someone in your organization announces that he or she is considering a campaign, you have been warned about it! Watch out, and take care of those good donors. nd if you are right in the middle of a campaign, you still have time to influence the messaging and strategies. If you don't do it, I promise that your revenue will suffer in future years.
Oh, the organization I mentioned at the top of this post that has a very successful major-gifts program but is now launching into a campaign … well, two things: (1) The campaign will be successful — the organization has hired a group that knows its stuff, and (2) The major-gifts revenue will suffer in the year after the campaign. I won't be able to confirm this until later this year, but I would bet a fair chunk of money that I am right.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.