What makes a campaign successful?
“It depends,” is a well-established, go-to answer for consultants, but that doesn’t mean it is an altogether unhelpful response. From leadership, to donor engagement, to giving history at the institution, successful campaigns do, in fact, “depend,” on numerous important variables.
One variable, though not often discussed, is exceptionally predictive of campaign success. It is what our firm calls the “believability factor.” This factor is important because it impacts the donor at the very beginning of the campaign process and discussion. It sets the stage for all future conversations and it colors all information, education, and engagement activities that occur through the cultivation and solicitation process. To understand the power of the “believability factor,” it is helpful to understand what, exactly, it is and how it works.
Campaign “believability” can be defined in two ways.
First, a campaign is seen as being “believable” if major donors, in general, perceive the proposed campaign dollar goal as achievable. The dollar goal may be viewed as a stretch for the institution, but, major donors must be willing to state that the stretch can be reached. If you were to ask major donors whether or not they believe a proposed campaign dollar goal is achievable, and you asked them to rate their confidence on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being “high confidence in achieving the dollar goal”), you would want to see the scores around the 4-7 range. You certainly don’t want ratings of 1-3 as that would suggest they believe the campaign dollar goal to be a fantasy number. Conversely, you wouldn’t want to see scores in the 8-10 range as that would suggest that these major donors believe the campaign dollar goal is too low. When a campaign’s dollar goal is not “believable” – especially when it is viewed as being far too high – the institution runs the risk of turning off major donors from the start. Who would make a decision to give their best gift in support of a campaign they believed to be headed for failure?
The second way a campaign’s “believability” is understood by major donors is based on the campaign initiatives that are being presented. Are these initiatives viewed as being achievable by the institution should the money be raised? Is the leadership in place to deliver? Is the infrastructure present to support the initiative? Is the initiative viewed as a pipe-dream or as a logical next step for the institution based on its strengths and its strategic plan? If major donors perceive the institution to be “dreaming” recklessly, they will, again, be discouraged from making their best gifts.
Recently, I was with a higher education client in the process of preparing for a campaign. The president is a visionary with bold aspirations. He is an advancement leader’s dream but he can also be viewed as being a bit too ambitious with major donors expressing some measure of skepticism at his plans and aspirations. His initial instinct was to propose a campaign dollar goal that was far and away larger than anything ever considered by the institution. As I shared with him the importance and power of the “believablity factor,” he responded, “So, we need our campaign dollar goal to be a number that encourages each of our major donors to see how their stretch gift can help us achieve that goal.”
“Exactly!” I said, “your major donors know they are at the top of your giving pyramid. So, if they can’t imagine how their gift helps you significantly reach your proposed dollar goal, they won’t be inspired to give significantly.”
The aspirations we have for our institutions should always be filtered through the lens of “believability.” When we get it right, we encourage the best gifts from our best donors. But, if we get it wrong, we discourage them. And that may not be easy to reverse.