Susanne Williamson, Head of Fundraising at Walter + Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, says it is imperative to have all your ducks in a row prior to launching a capital campaign. Lise Taylor reports.

capital campaign susanne williamsonWith 25 years’ fundraising, marketing and management experience behind her, Walter + Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research’s Head of Fundraising, Susanne Williamson, is no stranger to running large-scale capital campaigns. In fact, her latest venture is a highly aspirational $50 million fellowship campaign that aims to secure the future of the Institute’s early-career researchers.
So when Williamson says there are times when nonprofit organisations should not be running capital campaigns, her advice may well be worth listening to.

“While every single charitable organisation would benefit from improving its stakeholder engagement and stewardship of prospective major donors, this does not mean every charitable organisation is ready to undertake a major gifts campaign,” she explains.

Williamson says organisational readiness and an understanding of the commitment and resources that will be required is vital. Here she has provided an outline of the key reasons why she believes a nonprofit should not go ahead with one.

If you need more money

If your board and chief executive are telling you the organisation “needs more money”, your organisation is not yet ready to conduct a capital campaign.

A capital campaign, whether it is for a building or other major project, is about the aspirational vision of the future of the nonprofit and how this large investment will make some sort of significant change. It has almost nothing to do with fundraising – it is all about vision. This means that if all your board or CEO is saying is that more money is needed, you are not ready. Donors have no interest in just giving more money. They need to be inspired.

If you don’t have a compelling proposition

So the very first thing you need to consider is: what is your compelling proposition? The answer to that question is never, ever “we need more money”. The proposition is not about the money; it is about the vision.

To drive a capital campaign, an organisation must have a goal that is genuinely inspiring and to which it is deeply committed over the long term. In addition, if an organisation is going to embark on an ambitious campaign, it is not solely the fundraisers’ job to secure the funds. It will require having the board members, the CEO and the broader staff on board – and everyone involved will have to make a courageous commitment.

Why? Because capital campaigns aren’t easy. If donations slow down half way along, it is often the case that everyone panics and wants to pull out mid-stream. The compelling proposition is as important for maintaining organisational commitment as it is vital for securing donor support.

If you have an annual operating shortfall

If you have just received the budget projections for the next financial year and the fundraising target equals the annual operating shortfall, your organisation is not yet ready to conduct a capital campaign.

What shortfall budgeting will tell you is that the organisation is experiencing operational issues and is not yet confidently funding its operational requirements. These requirements are about annual fundraising – not about capital fundraising. A capital campaign does not fill an operating gap. To address a shortfall issue, the nonprofit will have to run a solid, annual, fundraising program. Then, once that’s in place, it can focus on aspirational gifts for its big, bold, transformational idea.

If your chairman or CEO doesn’t want to be involved

If your chairman or chief executive has told you they don’t want to be involved in asking for major gifts, your organisation is not yet ready to conduct a major gifts campaign.

If donors are going to make a significant commitment to your organisation, they have to hear from your CEO or chairman.

A capital campaign is about the future direction of the organisation and these are the people who set this longer term vision. Without that credibility donors are not going to have confidence in the organisation’s ability to deliver. That isn’t to say others don’t do an enormous about of work with donors but those aspirational conversations need to occur with the CEO or chair. That’s what matters.

If you don’t have the systems, commitment and people to steward major donors over the long term

The most important thing to master if you want to successfully secure major gifts is not how to ask for a major gift – but how to prepare your organisation to steward major donors.

It is not uncommon for CEOs, board members and fundraisers to experience a sense of anxiety around asking for gifts. However, this is not the most important thing they will do. The most important thing is how they will manage relationships with donors once the gifts have been secured.

Actually asking is, in reality, pretty easy but implementing a sustainable, comprehensive stewardship program is where the majority of organisations fail, and this is particularly true when they raise money for a building.

What tends to happen is that there is a massive push over a three to five year timeframe to raise funds for the building. The fundraiser remembers to invite the donors to the opening. Then there is often a change of staff because the fundraiser has a win under his or her belt, is called by headhunters and moves on.

The fundraiser who replaces this person does not have relationships with the original donors and they are never engaged with again. The result? They will be unlikely to donate again because of lack of stewardship.

If you aren’t prepared for your donors to be involved in your organisation over the long term

Wealthy individuals are wealthy because they are astute, forward thinking, observant and full of interesting ideas. They want to contribute much more than their money.

Wealthy donors are high-stake stakeholders and you will need to help your organisation prepare for all of the responsibilities and requirements that are part and parcel of receiving larger gifts.

You also need to understand that major donors will often want a fair amount of involvement. At the Institute, the donors meet up with the researchers they are supporting on a regular basis. Some donors are on its Advocacy and Support Committee and some are on its board. Therefore, you do need to think about the fact that you can’t just take donor gifts, thank them and consider the job is done.

If everyone in your organisation is not ready

The most difficult, time consuming and sometimes frustrating part of a fundraiser’s role is in addressing issues associated with organisational readiness.

Getting an organisation comfortable with the shared work involved in delivering a major campaign is, in itself, a big job. Board members must be prepared to open doors, the CEO must make time (and a fair amount of time) for donors, the database will have to be cleaned, the rest of the organisation will have to understand why the capital campaign is important to them and be prepared to talk to donors as well.

It takes a surprising amount of time to get people on board internally. And often, what will happen is that everyone will say, “Yeah, we want more money.” But that’s not what we’re talking about. It is about the entire organisation committing to a compelling vision for the future that they wish to share with their donors so that everyone can be part of achieving that inspiring vision. For example, the Institute’s board, director, donors and scientists are deeply and genuinely committed to making sure Australia continues to benefit from the remarkable improvements in disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment that medical research has delivered.

By supporting the Institute’s Centenary Fellowship campaign, donors are ensuring Australians will benefit from medical research. Donors are directly investing in the promising young scientists who will make the discoveries during the next decades.

To date, this inspiring vision has secured $20 million in major gifts, and has contributed to annual fundraising revenue doubling over the past three years. It was totally worth getting the ducks in a row.

Organisational must-haves

Here are just some of the things you will need to have in place before you launch into a major gifts campaign:

• identify how a major gift would be transformative and prepare your compelling case for support
• ensure transparent financial management and investment guidelines
• secure board level agreement about the application of the funds
• secure board level agreement about any recognition of gifts
• confirm management agreement about potential donor involvement in your organisation
• ensure that the CEO is committed to making time for donor meetings
• identify other organisational representatives who are willing to be involved in approaches to prospects
• develop a pipeline of prospects
• prepare plans for how you will steward your major donors
• share the story with the entire organisation before you start talking to donors.

Image: Breast cancer researchers Professor Geoff Lindeman and Professor Jane Visvader, who jointly lead the Walter + Eliza Hall Institute’s ACRF Stem Cells and Cancer Division, were awarded the 2016 Ramaciotti Medal for Excellence in Biomedical Research.

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