There are many motivations for giving, yet at the core of a
successful charitable relationship is the fact that a nonprofit has told its
story passionately and has inspired a donor. At the start of
fundraising campaigns, this inspiration often is obscured by the excitement of
focusing on specific building plans.
When a nonprofit is preparing for a vital growth spurt, or
desperately needs to renovate a dilapidated building, the natural inclination
is to focus on the physical facility that must be located, purchased or
repaired. Sometimes there is plenty of time to think strategically;
in other situations there is urgency and things need to be done quickly.
Regardless of the timeframe, misalignment of priorities
often hampers successful campaign fundraising.
There are three mistakes nonprofits commonly make when
beginning capital campaigns. Addressing these issues not only is vital when planning a
significant, often multi-million-dollar campaign, but the same sound principals
hold true for other fundraising efforts.
Mistake 1: Failing to tell the story
The question, "So what?," must be answered in a
way that is so compelling to donors that they understand why the proposed
project will have a positive impact on the community. This story can be told years before a specific building is
identified and can generate early seed dollars. The story should connect the big vision of how the nonprofit
is making the world a better place to how a new or renovated facility will
enable even greater community impact.
The building is a major element of the story, but when told
correctly the facility could be a minor plotline in a narrative that uses the
organization's aspirations to inspire donors.For example, a new theater is not important solely because
of a shiny modern building. It is important because it represents the expression and
experience of performing art: A new building can be a stronger cultural hub for
a neighborhood that draws more people to experience theater and intellectual
discourse, it can attract additional playwrights and actors, and it can provide
ancillary economic benefits to its neighbors.
Mistake 2: Getting too attached
Never assume that the first choice for a new building, or
even for an architect's plan, will be the actual choice when the campaign is
over and the new space is occupied years later. Getting attached early on narrows a nonprofit's options and
can create confused and disappointed constituents if things don't work out. If the case statement and initial conversations with donors
center on a particular site, building or plan, an unforeseen change in
direction could disappoint donors and derail progress.
The story does not need to be site-specific. Rather, stay
focused on the passionate story while the details about sites and buildings are
Mistake 3: Waiting for ducks to line up
Rather than waiting until all the details of a campaign are
settled, it is important to engage constituents early in the process.
Let donors, board members, corporations, foundations and the
rest of the community participate in the early excitement and planning. This will help constituents feel engaged in the process, not
just for their money but because their ideas and assistance are
Talk to people to find out what they think of the proposed
project. Does the passionate story resonate? If not, how could it be adjusted?
Are many people echoing the same concerns? Imagine their delight, and perhaps
generosity, when they find their views have been incorporated.
By avoiding the first two mistakes, a nonprofit's campaign
will be focused on a passionate story that is not bound to a specific location
until necessary. And by sidestepping the third mistake, donors are engaged
early in the campaign process so they will feel ownership, rather than being
presented with completed plans too late in the game to cultivate genuine
Peter Heller runs Peter J. Heller
Consulting, a New York City-based fundraising consulting firm that works with
local, national and international nonprofits on capital campaigns.
This article was originally posted in Philanthropy Journal