There was a time not so long ago when launching a major fundraising campaign was a momentous step. Institutions took this step once a generation, if that often. When they approached donors, the request was for a once-in-a-lifetime stretch gift – a commitment that celebrated the donor’s long history of support for that organization, or spurred new leadership gifts.

Clearly times have changed. Campaigns now follow hot on each other’s heels, sometimes with barely a break between the final report of one and the first solicitations of the next.

It’s arguable that there are both upsides and downsides to this new way of doing business. What’s less debatable, though, is this: However common campaigns have become, they should not be considered automatic or undertaken for the wrong reasons—only because everyone else is doing one or it seems like time.

What’s at Stake

Why is it so important to think carefully before committing to a campaign? Three reasons:

Because of the cost in time and money. Campaigns require real investment to be successful, from planning and additional staff to collateral and events. Some campaigns cost less than others, but going into campaign mode and expecting not to spend money is foolish. The whole point is to turn the work of fundraising into an event in the life of your institution, to make a splash, and to make it memorable.

Because of the opportunity cost. It’s important to remember that the decision you face is not simply whether to invest in a campaign but whether to do rather than investing elsewhere. For instance, you could commit instead to the work of steadily building your fundraising capacity and your success, soliciting major gifts, but not under the banner of a campaign. Or you could launch a campaign of a different kind—a marketing and communications effort that will build your image and energize new prospects.

Because of the risk. Most campaigns succeed, even if it takes a couple years more than expected to hit goal, but there’s no guarantee, especially if the organization fails to invest in a solid planning study as a starting point. And especially if it is that organization’s first campaign ever.

Campaigns are, in fact, called off more often than you might think, even after campaign cabinets have been convened and top donors briefed. Alternately, they may limp along to their goal, but fail to produce the intended sense of momentum and confidence. This is not the result you want.

Making the Right Decision the Right Way

At Schultz & Williams, we see four elements as essential to a successful campaign. Deciding whether this is the time to move forward means testing the strength of each of these elements:

  • Committed Leadership
  • Organizational Infrastructure
  • A Healthy Prospect Pool
  • A Compelling Case for Support

It’s a seemingly simple list, but to check each item off with confidence takes some rigorous thinking. Consider the capacity of your prospect pool. Have you looked carefully at your donors at every giving level to spot any weak links in the chain (for instance, are those at the $10,000-25,000 ready to step forward as potential $100,000 campaign supporters?) Do you understand the implications of your organization’s trends in retained donors—your most valuable prospects—as well as your population of recovered donors and potential new donors? Have you done capacity screening? If not, your sense of your donors’ readiness (and of a reasonable goal) may be really just a hunch.

The same kind of tough follow-up questions apply when it comes to your case for support. A compelling case is more than a list of needs and a pitch for meeting them. It’s a story—one you believe and can stand behind—about your organization’s impact, your vision, and why this campaign is essential now.

True, you might have the seeds of a strong case, but not yet fully articulated it. Yes, you might have a few gaps in infrastructure you’re still attending to. The point is not that conditions have to be perfect to commit to a campaign. It’s that the decision to move forward should be based on careful consideration of costs, benefits, and other options rather than the misperception that a campaign is an “easy way” to jump start your fundraising or add a cushion of operating income.

Everyone wants more operating money; a campaign is not always the best answer. Sometimes that answer lies in the hard, ongoing work of building fundraising success: investing in talented development staff, in research and acquisition, and in the careful process of building and sustaining relationships with donors.

S&W has worked with a number of organizations over years who have launched highly successful campaigns—but not at the moment they first expected. Our initial explorations of their campaign readiness revealed that the timing was not optimal, that 24-48 months of preparatory work would position them more strongly. Typically we focus efforts during these months on development planning, an investment in the organization’s capacity that serves them well when the time for a campaign does arrive—and also long after.

When it comes to the decision to launch a campaign, the lesson is to proceed with care, and when you do, to take every step needed to ensure a resounding success!