As we have discovered together over the past year, living through history-making times can be immensely distracting and deeply stressful. Yet life must go on, and in fundraising that means campaigns must go on too—and they are. At Schultz & Williams, we have been working throughout the pandemic with a number of organizations now at various stages of campaign planning. And for good reason: As The Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported, the second quarter of 2020 marked a five-year high in both number of donors and level contributions nationwide.
All this is very different, however, from saying that those us in the nonprofit world are fundraising as usual. Instead, we are finding that an organization contemplating a campaign now needs to come to terms with a whole new range of concerns. To do so, engaging in a thorough campaign planning study is proving more essential than ever.
Fundamentally, such a study will focus on the same elements that have always determined campaign readiness: a compelling case for support, a donor base with the capacity and inclination to give, solid leadership, and the necessary staffing and infrastructure. But for nearly every nonprofit, each of these elements looks different today than it did a year ago.
This is especially true when it comes to the mindset of your donors and the case for support you need to frame in order to engage them.
Your Donors and Your Case
As many have noted, we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, with COVID and the deep recession it has caused, racial injustice and economic inequality rendered visible like never before, political turmoil on a grand scale, and climate change ever-pressing in the background.
Together, these forces have the potential to influence the worldview of your donors in profound ways. This raises questions essential to answer in planning a campaign, including:
- How comfortable are your potential donors in making significant commitments at this moment?
- Have their philanthropic priorities shifted, for instance towards organizations most directly meeting immediate needs?
- Has their time horizon changed? Do they want to see a return on their philanthropic investment sooner?
- Do they remain committed to your organization, but expect shifts in your focus responsive to current demands?
- Has the nature of their intellectual and emotional connection to the causes they fund changed?
The core insight we want to share—one we see reconfirmed every day—is that the only way to answer these questions is to ask them. There is no single “donor mindset” to unlock, only the mindset of your donors in relation to your mission at this moment. Your campaign planning interviews will help you understand where those donors now stand in a complete and nuanced way, and the insights gained will determine the case for support you need to present.
A symphony orchestra may find it is compelled to show funders the ways in which its community programming is addressing issues of social justice or, more fundamentally, to make the case that the arts are more important now than ever before.
On the other hand, an environmental organization may feel it needs to position its work as directly addressing issues of environmental justice—only to find that’s not what its supporters signed on for. As these hypotheticals illustrate, taking the time to test your messages is not just helpful, but essential.
This is also true when it comes to the priorities you are looking to fund. Might proposing a new athletic facility at this point seem tone deaf? Or investing in an endowment less than urgent? Is completing a pressing project still a driver for certain donors? And which is the more primary concern, immediate impact or lasting personal legacy? The process of discovery will help you find out.
Your Campaign Plan and Your Strategic Plan
Ideally, every campaign builds on the strong foundation of a strategic plan, and this is particularly true now. As you seek significant support, you a need bold, long-term vision that lifts donors’ sites beyond this time of crisis. You need a north star goal that extends beyond COVID and, of course, that justifies the priorities you are seeking to support.
This means that if you are moving toward a campaign and have not completed a strategic plan you should. Or, as is more likely the case, if you have a plan, but it was completed before COVID struck, you should review and re-validate it. This is the time to ask what the pandemic and your response have shown you and the world about your mission, your impact, and your potential. The answers will inspire refinements in your strategic plan that will make it both a more useful roadmap for organizational progress and a more compelling starting point for your campaign.
As part of this strategic plan review and re-validation, it’s extremely useful to seek input from an inner circle of loyal stakeholders. The discussions will yield valuable insights. They will also engage leaders of your future campaign early-on, starting a conversation that will continue as you move into your planning study.
Done well, this planning study will do much more than give you the thumbs up or down on moving forward. It will become a meaningful dialogue with individuals who are committed partners in your mission, helping you understand their perspective in an environment like none we have seen before.