Schultz & Williams Senior Vice President Kathy Watson was a featured speaker at the 2017 Compass Conference sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Her presentation “Story Telling: Best Practices in Major Gift Fundraising” featured real donor stories that illustrate key principles in the cultivation and solicitation of significant gifts. This is the fifth story in a series of nine.

As fundraisers, one of the strategic decisions we face is determining when a donor is ready to be solicited. If we ask too soon—without enough cultivation and engagement—we are likely to receive a gift well below the donor’s potential. If we wait too long, we can miss our window of opportunity. Striking that careful balance is critical to major gift success. Let me share an example.

Schultz & Williams conducted a $2 million campaign planning study for a small, community-based counseling organization. The organization—we’ll call it the Smith Center—could not renew the lease for its rented space and was considering buying a building to serve as a permanent home. The advantages of having a permanent home were obvious to the staff: establishing a stable base of operations, becoming a more visible community resource, and building equity over time. However, the Board had not yet reached consensus. Since the Smith Center was totally supported by contributed revenue, Board members were concerned about increased overhead, a focus on real estate rather than expanded services, and the impact of a campaign on their annual fund. Finally, the Board wanted to know how the center’s clients would feel about a move that could potentially interrupt services.

Mary Peters, one of the center’s founding Board members and most generous donors, shared these concerns. Her support would be essential to a successful campaign—not only because it would represent a key leadership gift, but because other donors in the community would be highly influenced by Mary’s commitment. And while our campaign planning study had shown that a successful campaign was within the center’s reach, we knew that Mary should not be asked for a leadership gift until her concerns were addressed. That was not an easy decision—the clock was ticking, and every month the center moved closer to being without a home.

With assistance from Schultz & Williams, the Smith Center took the following steps to address strategic issues and build consensus:

  • Conducted a Board survey to allow Board members to express their views about the future vision for the Smith Center and how a new building would influence that vision.
  • Engaged in a strategic business planning process to forge Board consensus, further define the facility options, link the facility plan to a strong vision and new institutional goals for the future, refine the financial projections, and begin strategizing on early campaign solicitations.
  • Surveyed a representative sample of clients via an online questionnaire to secure their input into the planning process. The survey gave Smith Center stakeholders an opportunity to share their views on what an ideal environment for clients and families would look like. It also served to educate them at the earliest phase of the campaign.

After three months of thoughtful planning and frank dialogue, the center’s Board unanimously voted to move forward. They launched their capital campaign and began the search for a building. Both efforts were successfully concluded within 18 months… and Mary Peters made the lead gift to the campaign and actively solicited other donors.
In thinking about this story, there are three major takeaways:

  • Business planning and fundraising planning are inextricably linked, particularly in major gift fundraising. Donors want to know that our plans are well considered and solid. It’s better to delay major solicitations until we can answer the questions that sophisticated donors will ask.
  • Engagement in the planning process can be a highly effective form of cultivation that develops a sense of ownership for the plan.
  • Building Board consensus in advance of a major capital campaign is essential for campaign success, since we look to the Board to serve as campaign ambassadors to the wider community.


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