Reimagining the Capital Campaign Model: Feasibility Studies
With your year-end fundraising out of the way, you might now be looking ahead to bigger-picture strategic goals for your nonprofit in the coming years. Ready to kickstart some serious growth for your mission after adapting to all the challenges and lessons of the pandemic?
Perhaps your organization is planning a capital campaign. If so, you’ve likely started (or will soon start) thinking about conducting a feasibility study. For most organization’s that’s a standard way to get going. Just hire a capital campaign consulting firm to do a feasibility study to tell you how much your organization can raise.
What is a traditional feasibility study?
Feasibility studies, or campaign planning studies as they are sometimes called, have been a standard part of the capital campaign planning process for decades.
In the traditional model, an outside consulting firm will send consultants to have confidential interviews with your organization’s largest donors and the opinion setters in your community. The consultants will ask for their opinions about your organization, its leadership, and reputation. They will discuss the organization’s plans for a campaign. And they will try to get a sense of what those people might contribute to a campaign when the time comes to make a gift.
The interviews are usually conducted with a promise that what the interviewee shares will be confidential and not reported to the organization with a specific attribution.
Consultants believe that the promise of confidentiality will free donors to say things they might not tell the organization’s leaders directly. The promise of confidentiality means that the consultants will not share with their client what the donors said or how much any specific donor indicated they might give.
After the interviews, the consultants collate and analyze their findings and develop recommendations about what your campaign goal should be plus various other suggestions about how to strengthen your development program and increase your organization’s visibility. Because of the promise of confidentiality, the staff and key board members have no opportunity to see the specific data from individual interviews and therefore no chance to add their deeper knowledge about donor patterns and behavior to the analysis and determination of recommendations.
The consultants will present their recommendations to your board, and the board will then vote on whether to accept the consultant’s report and whether to proceed with a campaign as recommended by the consultant.
Feasibility studies like this are standard practice, and they 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, uncovering both strengths and weaknesses the organization should be aware of.
They give the board a sense of confidence because of the expertise of the consultant.
Questioning the Traditional Model
In recent years, longtime campaign experts (like us at the Capital Campaign Toolkit) have raised some questions about the standard feasibility study model and have developed a new model.
Wouldn’t it be more productive to have the leadership of your organization involved in those probing and serious conversations with the people who are so important to the future of the organization?
Shouldn’t the process of determining the campaign goal be more transparent? Wouldn’t it be more helpful if the leaders of your organization knew what the donors thought? And shouldn’t the development staff and the leadership be actively involved in the process of setting the campaign goal?
If asked properly, won’t donors tell the organization’s leaders what they really think? One of the rationales for having an outside consultant conduct the interviews is that donors won’t tell the organization’s leaders their genuine opinions, but is that true? And even if it were true, do you really want an outside consultant unearthing negative feedback from donors that you can’t then mitigate with follow-up conversations?
Loyal high-value donors, the supporters who’ll be pushing your campaign to success, have told us their own thoughts on the process, too. Friends who regularly make large donations to their favorite nonprofits have said that they don’t like talking to consultants and would much rather talk directly with the head of the organization. This is what spurred us to begin imagining a new, more direct approach.
A New and Effective Feasibility Study Model
Having asked and debated those questions, we’ve developed a new model — the Guided Feasibility Study — in which the campaign experts help prepare and organize the feasibility study, but leaders from the organization conduct the conversation/interviews themselves.
The consultants train the leaders, provide systems for capturing the important information, help interpret the findings, and then help develop the recommendations and report.
After a year of testing, the results are in. Organizations have found that the guided feasibility study model in which the organization’s leaders conduct the conversations with their most important donors is more effective than the traditional model.
Here’s what they’ve learned:
When the leaders of the organization conduct the donor conversations, the relationships with the donors and opinion leaders they talk with become stronger.
When organizational leaders are given effective training so they can conduct the conversations themselves, they become more confident and comfortable in talking to their donors. In fact, they are likely to continue to have constructive conversations with their most important donors long after the feasibility study is over — an invaluable skill for all future fundraising.
Working together, the campaign experts and the leaders who conduct the donor conversations are able to develop clear and transparent recommendations. They combine the information gathered with a deep understanding of the donor base and the realities of the organization’s fundraising potential. They are then able to present recommendations to the board that combine the expertise and credibility of campaign experts with the full and transparent knowledge of what was captured in the interviews.
When leaders conducted the interviews, they even sometimes led to significant early commitments to the campaign, building early confidence for the campaign. And finally, once the campaigns got underway, the cultivation of lead donors who had been interviewed in the study seemed more natural because they grew from earlier conversations. They’ll feel more closely involved and be more likely to help spread the word.
Guided Feasibility Studies: A Blended Approach
The new model for feasibility studies combines the expertise of a seasoned campaign expert with the capabilities and on-the-ground insights of the organization’s leadership.
The expert guides the process, trains the people doing the interviews, helps draft the report, and co-presents the report and recommendations 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.
Free Capital Campaign Strategy Session
Schedule a complimentary 45-minute strategy session to learn more about guided feasibility studies and discuss your campaign with one of our veteran campaign advisors. We’re happy to help get your campaign started on the right foot. Apply for your free strategy session today!
Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders running successful campaigns. The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.