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How to Launch a Campaign When Everyone's Launching a Campaign

Posted: 1/10/2022

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

By Andy Brommel

If you need anything from me over the next year, I'll be at a wedding.

Rescheduled 2020 weddings, would-have-been-2021 weddings, plus the baseline weddings that would have happened in 2022: I have no other social plans for next year.

And when I'm not attending three years' worth of weddings, I'll be helping launch three years' worth of fundraising campaigns — many delayed, rescheduled, or accelerated by the pandemic. As my tireless colleagues at Campbell & Company can attest, the wave of campaign planning, launching, and relaunching coming our way over the next year or so will be one to remember.

So when everyone's launching a campaign, how can yours succeed? How does a crowded field affect strategy? I don't know for sure, but here's what I'm hearing from my colleagues across the firm.

Don't obsess over the competition. It doesn't help, and with total giving continuing to rise, there's no immediate cause for alarm. In fundraising, your enemy is rarely the nonprofit down the street. It's apathy, inertia, the baseline difficulty of connecting with prospects and following through with well-planned solicitations on a large scale. The current environment informs how we plan a campaign more than whether we should.

Consider a narrower campaign. Specialization is a timeless way to adapt to a crowded market. For example, in a small town, the most successful restaurant may be a diner with 100 dishes on the menu. But in my neighborhood in Chicago, it's a food truck that only sells cupcakes.

Now may not be the time to attempt a seven-year comprehensive campaign with eight projects of which only two are actually ready for prime time — just take a couple of top-priority projects, build out the case for them, and gas up the food truck.

You don't have to announce or solicit prematurely, but don't wait to begin engagement. One of my clients this year felt pressure to announce a campaign prematurely to "get out in front of" other campaigns in the community. Instead, we advised the organization to look for ways to quietly engage top prospects early — even before every detail of the case was nailed down.

Early engagement can take many forms: conversations with your leaders, invitations for feedback, small-group cultivation experiences. Share your vision, be transparent about where you are in defining plans and projects, and listen, so you'll understand your potential donors' mind-sets after a year that has changed many people's priorities. Speaking of …

It's time to requalify your major-gift prospects — you might be surprised. For every organization seeing an influx of new donors due to the pandemic, there's another discovering that longtime donors, whom they were counting on for lead gifts, have refocused their giving priorities — sometimes both are happening within the same organization.

Both phenomena signal a need to redouble your donor qualification efforts, both to re-qualify some as strong leads for big gifts and to identify new people who have developed a passion for your cause in the past year. Don't take anyone for granted, keep an eye out for new prospects, and leave MacKenzie Scott alone.

Consider more flexible approaches to volunteer leadership. Like a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard that somehow know they're the same species, a $1 million campaign and a $5 billion campaign both register as campaigns, in part because they probably both have the same campaign steering committee structure and may even involve some of the same people.

But while the importance of volunteer leadership remains universal, we're seeing more experimentation with volunteer leadership structures, such as larger committees with lighter responsibilities for each member, smaller working committees made up of only the most engaged members, leadership cabinets with four or five folks instead of the long-standing practice of having two co-chairs (one old, one new), and chair roles for specific phases of a campaign rather than its full length so no one has to sign on for five years of open-ended labor.

We don't have to do it the way we've always done it, especially in a moment when people are thinking anew about their time commitments.

Maybe it's not a campaign after all? First, let us praise the campaign model — the most reliable large-scale means of channeling vision, focusing commitment, forcing organizational investment in fundraising, and elevating donor relationships that our profession has known. Long live the campaign!

But just because our biggest hammer says "campaign" on it doesn't mean every organizational fundraising challenge is a nail. Consider your goals, your audience, and your moment. Would you be better served by:

  • A quick and focused major-giving effort in support of a single big project?
  • A low-dollar community campaign focused on engaging new donors and showing the impact of their gifts?
  • A crowdfunding campaign built around the interests of your donor community?
  • An overdue investment in the core of your fundraising operation: staff and systems, case development, relationship management?

The beauty of a campaign is that it rolls all those things together and galvanizes an organization and its leaders to go for it all now — but there's no reason you can't pursue them à la carte.

As we continue to make our way through the pandemic and its disruptions, we all will get to define the future of campaign fundraising — which practices snap back to normal, what emerges fresh, and what never comes back. That's too big a question to answer today but something to ponder as you wait in the reception line at all those weddings. See you out there!

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