When preparing a case for support for a major gifts initiative or campaign, institutional leaders will typically travel down one of two paths. Either they will present donors with a vision for the institution’s future and list the specific priorities which need funding in order to achieve that vision or they will present a list of all needs of the institution and ask the donor to choose which are worthy of support. The first approach is institution-centric and the second is donor-centric.
There are concerns with both approaches. With the institution-centric approach, institutional leaders run the risk of navel-gazing and setting forth fundraising priorities that do not capture the imagination, interest, and support from donors. Asking donors to fund ‘our needs,’ isn’t typically an inspiring request. With the donor-centric approach, institutional leaders can find themselves with projects and initiatives which may receive adequate funding but that may take them far afield from their mission. Funding a set of incoherent projects and initiatives will not advance the institution in any consistent and clear way.
But there is a third approach. It is messy, it takes time, and it requires artful relationship talents. The alternative approach is to generate a shared vision between the institution and its key constituents. We should not propose a unilateral vision to our donors nor should we provide a buffet of endless choices from which our donors can choose. Instead, we should build with those key donors and constituents a vision for the institution’s future that is based on the mission and an institutional strategic plan. We have the opportunity to build a shared vision and funding priorities when we pause to ask those who care about our institution questions such as:
- Is our mission clear? Why does our institution exist and why is it important that our institution be even stronger?
- What are our strengths and unique characteristics?
- What are the opportunities our institution has on the horizon which could positively impact our capacity to serve our publics?
- What should our institution aspire to achieve over the next 5-10 years?
When we include our most influential publics in helping establish a shared vision, plan, and funding priorities, we increase the probability the priorities will be funded. At the same time, we decrease the risk that the funding priorities will be disconnected from a helpful vision. A true win-win!
Our role is to provide the leadership that strategically reaches out, authentically questions, actively listens, and artfully blends our institutional wants with our key constituents’ interests. Yes, this work is messy and time-consuming (and sometimes frustrating!). But it is also the most important work you will ever do.