Advancing Philanthropy

Fundraising Tools: A New Model for Capital Campaign Feasibility Studies – Engage Donors Before Asking for a Gift

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I’ve often thought that if I were an executive director, and a consultant was talking to my largest donors—probing them for their opinions—I’d be nervous.

Really, if you’re not anxious about that, you should be! Under the promise of confidentiality, traditional campaign consultants invite your donors to tell them things about you and your organization that they might not tell you. Doesn’t that make you cringe?

In a traditional feasibility study, you hire a consulting firm to interview your top donors and influencers to ask them their opinion of your organization, your leadership, and your campaign plans.

A Story of Exploration, Innovation and Surprise

For many years, I was a traditional campaign consultant. So, I understand the traditional feasibility study model well. But in recent years, I’ve come to question the wisdom of sending an outside consultant to interview top donors.

In confidential interviews, consultants raise concerns which, because of the promise of confidentiality, can’t be addressed directly by the organization.

My concerns were kicked into high gear when some of my philanthropist friends started telling me how they didn’t like talking to the parade of consultants who made their way to their doors for campaign after campaign.

“Andrea,” they said, “you like to think about doing things differently. Why don’t you figure out a better feasibility study model? Figure out a model in which donors can talk to the people who run the organizations rather than outside consultants. That’d be much more helpful to us.”

I took their request to heart and started working on a new model.

Why a New Model for Campaign Feasibility Studies?

Ultimately, I had three reasons to develop a new approach for conducting feasibility studies.

1. Establishing stronger overall donor relationships

The most effective fundraising is based on building strong relationships between the donors and the organization they support. Anything that undermines that relationship, undermines the fundraising.

So, when a consultant asks a donor to share their concerns about the organization and its leaders in a confidential interview, those concerns are never adequately addressed. In fact, I was concerned that in raising donor concerns, a consultant may (unintentionally) undermine the relationship between the donor and the organization’s leaders.

2. Building relationships with key leadership

At higher giving levels, donors want to get to know the leaders of the organization. As a donor once told me, “In our giving, we bet on the jockey, not the horse.” That donor, and many more, give at high levels because they trust and believe in the organization’s leadership. And many, if not most of them, would prefer to talk to the organization’s leaders rather than an outside consultant.

In fact, I was hearing stories from more and more organizations about feasibility studies in which the largest potential donors were unwilling to be interviewed by the consultant, effectively invalidating the study results.

3. Having authentic, insightful conversations with top donors

Lastly, I knew that even the most experienced ED’s have trouble finding a way to have genuine, probing conversations with their most important donors. Not only are they too busy, but they lack the context for such meetings. So, all too often, donor meetings only happen when it’s time to ask for a gift. The structure of a feasibility study provides an excellent opportunity for organizational leaders to have those conversations with their donors without the pressure of asking for a gift.

Devising a New Campaign Feasibility Study Model

I became convinced that the traditional model that put consultants at the center of the process was not ideal for every organization. But when I started working on a new model for feasibility studies that put the organizational leaders at the center of the interview process, I found I had more questions to answer:

  • Could organization’s leaders really conduct interviews in which they were not “pitching” their organizations, but rather exploring plans with donors?
  • Could leaders be trained to ask donors for their real opinions in a way that they were likely to get honest answers?
  • Would the results of a study conducted by the organization’s leaders have the credibility of a traditional study?

Over the next two years, with the help of my colleagues at the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we shaped a new model that answered those questions.

We tested our first feasibility study under the new model and over the next three years, we developed and refined the model as we tried it out with a number of eager organizations.

What We’ve Learned

This new model—the Guided Feasibility Study—works better than a traditional feasibility study for many organizations. We have answered our own questions, and we’ve learned other valuable lessons as well.

  1. Organizations leaders can have serious, probing discussions with their top donors. If given the right training and support, leaders can do a wonderful job of having free-flowing conversations with their largest donors. And in doing so, they strengthen those relationships.
  2. Leaders can learn to draw out concerns donors might have. By raising issues of concern and topics about which people have mixed opinions, leaders can broach subjects that lead to thoughtful discussions about what might be thorny issues. And, unlike the traditional model, when those challenging topics are discussed between a donor and the organization’s leader, they can find a constructive way forward.
  3. The study results are credible. Unlike in a traditional study, the recommendations in a guided feasibility study are arrived at through a collaboration between the people who conducted the interviews and their experienced consultant. Because this process is fully transparent and leaves no questions about how the numbers and recommendations were derived, the results have proven to be even more credible than a traditional study.
  4. Donors are happy to speak with the organization’s leaders. With almost no exceptions, donors were happy to talk with the leaders instead of consultants. And the turn-down rate among major donors was far smaller than the rates we had experienced when doing traditional studies.
  5. Leaders learned to love talking to their donors. While the organizational leaders were anxious as they prepared to speak with their most important donors, after a very few meetings, they became comfortable and even relished the experiences. In most cases, those leaders told us that they were empowered to continue the practice of having non-ask conversations with their donors and intended to continue to do that.
  6. Interviews provided an easy path to solicitation. Feasibility study interviews conducted by organizational leaders create a natural path to soliciting those donors once the campaign gets underway. The solicitation meeting became a follow-up visit, with leaders and donors, and conversations about gift amounts, having a natural starting place.
  7. Organizational leaders were able to make time to meet with their donors. While most leaders were afraid that they didn’t have enough time, the process encouraged them to off-load work to others so they could take on this important process.

Not All Organizations are Well-Suited for this Model

While the results of our new approach to feasibility studies have been overwhelmingly positive, some organizations aren’t ready or well-suited for the process.

If you are considering a Guided Feasibility Study, make sure that you have:

  • A clear plan and a compelling case for support
  • Qualified donors who are likely to make the top gifts to your campaign, and
  • Leaders (ED, DD and board chair) who are willing to participate in the study process.

Without those three things, this new feasibility study model will not work for you.

A Vast Improvement for Most Nonprofits

Feasibility studies have been a standard part of the campaign planning process for decades. For many, they have worked well. But we believe that the field benefits from the exploration of new models that call into question some dearly-held practices.

At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we are confident that for most organizations, this new model—one that puts the organization’s leadership at the center of the process—provides an excellent option that’s ripe with benefits for the organization and its donors.

Andrea Kihlstedt Andrea Kihlstedt is a trailblazer in the capital campaign field. Along with Amy Eisenstein, she co-founded the Capital Campaign Toolkit, an online support system for nonprofit leaders to run successful campaigns. Andrea is also author of the seminal book, “Capital Campaigns, Strategies that Work,” now in its 4th edition.

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